Monday, April 5, 2010

Part One

**This is a work in progress. All characters from L&O:CI are the property of Dick Wolf. All the others just roll around in my head.**



She had never seen herself this way.

After the attack, she had still been in shock. The first few days in the hospital had given her time to make plans. To figure out how she really needed to clean out the extra room, to think about the cases that would be waiting on her desk when she got back, to think about how many laps she would need to do around the park to make up for each day she had lain in this bed. The last few days gave her time to think about the realities of her situation. That Keith Forrester had gotten the best of her. That she wasn't safe in her own home. And that she couldn't go back there, to the blood, the vomit--the crime scene.

She had never seen herself as a victim. And now she did.

***************************************

He came to visit every day. Usually with some witty anecdote or obscure reference to entertain her with. They would chat as though nothing at all had happened. She knew he had been there, seen the worst of it, but she couldn't bring herself to speak of it to him. It was easier to think of laps around the park and the crazy quotes he dug up for her.

"You could write a philosophy book with that stuff, Goren," she told him after the third day. He had just finished explaining the effect of charged ions and how they would impact an actual hairstyling tool, as seen on TV. Then he had launched into ideas about quantum mechanics and physics and how Einstein had believed in a superior being, even with all his enlightenment. And that's when she had told him to write his book.

He grinned at her. It was what he was most hoping for, to take her mind off her current state. The concussion had been moderate as had her other injuries, and he knew she was still battling with headaches, blurry vision, and the in-and-out states of consciousness brought on by the painkillers. He had heard that she had tried to refuse them. She refused them for an entire day before she gave in. He guessed it took about that long for the memory of the assault to surface.

"Well, you're too late on your advice, Rayden", he told her, shaking his head. "I started that book a long time ago. One day you'll be checking it out in the library."

"Hmm," she grunted, shifting slightly. "I go to bookstores."

"You should opt for a greener planet."

She rolled her eyes. "And just how many of those styrofoam coffee cups do you go through in a week?"

Quickly he returned," Usually, five. This week, coming here...probably fifteen."

A silence fell between them and he felt that he had just done it, tripped over the big pink elephant in the room. The one they had been avoiding since she got here.

******************************************************

The next day she was awake and waiting for him. "Eames says you have Bruce."

He looked a little flustered. "Uh, yeah...I didn't mention that he was staying with me?"

She crossed her arms. "No." She looked at him steadily. "You didn't."

"Oh," he replied hastily. "Well, um, see...you know, well...Bruce was there. He needed a place to stay, while...you know, while you're...hung up...until you get home...Eames has a bird...she has a bird."

She continued to watch him skeptically. "Right. The bird."

He continued to evade her eyes, fussing with a cup of water on the bedside table. "He's doing great, you know. Nice dog. I've been feeding him the same food you had, and I take him for a run in the morning and at night."

"He doesn't like men, Goren. I'm surprised he hasn't bitten your balls off by now."

He choked on the cup of water. "Uh, we made friends...he, well, likes Vivaldi." And yes, Rayden, he thought, I still have my balls.

"You play Vivaldi for my dog?"

"Sure, while I'm gone. He's listening to it right now. I think it relaxes him. He also likes those Kong toys quite a bit."

He looked at her fully for the first time that day, noticing that she had now reclined and unfolded her arms. Her lids were droopy but she was still watching him, a little unnervingly. Her voice was growing less focused. "Bruce is a ball buster. Really, I mean. Watch your tennis balls, if you play."

Goren took the seat next to her, placing his cup of water back on the table. Gently, he touched her hand and she closed her eyes. "I don't play too often," he told her. He sensed her breathing becoming more rhythmic, slower, more relaxed. "Don't worry, Rayden," he whispered, watching her eyelids close as she fell into a soft sleep. "I've got it covered."

**********************************************

Vanessa slipped into her clothes. After a week in that goddamned hospital bed she was absolutely thrilled to be in her sweats and tee shirt. She bent down to tie her shoes but the wooziness caught up with her quickly. Sitting down on the previously-cursed bed, she sighed.

"Hey, let me get that."

Rayden looked at the tiny figure crossing the floor and reaching to tie her shoe. "Eames, I feel like you're Jesus right about now," she joked. Alex looked up and grinned. "Well, not exactly, but you can think of me as an apostle."

"Whatever." Vanessa slowly stood. God it felt good. "So what are you doing here?"

"Giving you a ride home." Alex finished unceremoniously dumping the rest of Vanessa's things into her bag. "Let's get you out of here. Tell you what, I'll even spring for one of those horrific sandwiches you love at Louie's." Glancing up, Alex noticed a stillness, a set jaw in Vanessa's face. "What? You decided you don't like Louie's anymore?"

"I'm not going home."

Eames had anticipated this. Going back to the scene of a crime, an attack, can be terrifying for some victims. She and Goren, along with Deakins, had brainstormed about the best way to get Vanessa back into the routine of being, well, Vanessa. And they had decided that Alex was the best option. Another woman, no-nonsense but comforting and with a long history together, would probably have a better chance of getting Rayden back into her apartment.

Alex sat down in the empty chair. "So." She crossed her legs."What's your plan, then?"

Vanessa reached for the duffel bag holding her personal items, determined not to let Alex talk her out of this. She had spent the last several days thinking about how she would manage this moment. Without looking at her friend, she replied, "I've reserved a room at the Wyndham."

Alex sighed. "Ness, come on. You know how important it is to go back and face this. The longer you wait, the harder it will be. I'll be with you. If you want, Goren and Deakins can come too. You aren't alone in this. You know that."

Vanessa swallowed hard. She was alone, more than Alex knew. More than anyone knew. Besides Bruce, she didn't have anyone she could count on in the world. She did fine on her own, but this...this was too much to ask. For a brief second, she wondered if Eames was aware of what Forrester had done to her. But her mind cleared within seconds and she knew the answer to her own question. Of course she did. Every damn person on the squad knew by now, even if they hadn't been first responders. There was a file with her name on it somewhere in the office, and if it weren't her own attack, it would have ended up on her own desk for profiling.

"I'm going to the Wyndham," she repeated tiredly. "I don't want to argue and I definitely don't want a cop brigade going back to that hellhole. I'll face it when I'm ready, Eames. And today isn't the day." Alex's hand reached to take the duffel bag from Vanessa's to stop her, but froze when she heard it. "Please, Alex." She carefully held on to the bag, taking it from Rayden and tossing it over her shoulder.

"Okay, Ness," she said quietly. "We'll do this your way. After all, you're the psychologist." Alex pointed. "Wheelchair," she directed. "You know they don't allow anyone out without one."

Vanessa smiled gently at her friend. "Thanks, Alex." She sat in the wheelchair and bent her head into her left hand, rubbing her temple. "Thanks for understanding."

*************************************************
The knock on her door startled her.

Alex had been a godsend, running to the drugstore and getting all of her meds filled, picking up some fresh fruit and bottled water and the preferred diet soda that Vanessa lived on. She had even stayed for most of the evening, ordering room service and watching godawful chick flicks until Vanessa's meds had made her drowsy again. Vaguely, Vanessa remembered Eames' gentle pat on her shoulder and a "See you tomorrow".

She was completely out of it. If alcohol was involved, she would call this shit-faced extraordinaire. She stretched in the huge bed, burying herself deeper under the covers. God, she could live here. Heaven. I'm already there.

Then the knocking again.

Dammit. What time was it? Who the hell is knocking on a hotel room? Didn't Eames put the damn do not disturb sign on the door? Surely maid service wasn't savvy enough to figure out she was alone in here. Groggily, she peered at the clock from under her pillow. 7:23. What the fuck?

Whoever it was, they were persistent. She was starting to move from annoyance to paranoia. She wobbled as she stood and grabbed hold of the corner of the nightstand. Somewhere was her phone....buried in something. Dammit. Where? The person knocking hit her door again, this time more aggressively, and Rayden found herself desperately wishing for her gun. Instead all she had was...there it was...her cell...dialed to 911 and poised at her ear and ready to press send should it be Forrester. Somehow she made it over to the door and peered out the peephole, then flung open the door.

"You scared the shit out of me," she gasped, and immediately lost her footing. Goren reached over to steady her. "Could we pretend, for a minute, that I've been through hell and might actually be distressed by someone knocking on my door at 7 in the morning?"

He smiled wryly. "Rayden, that would be fine, if it WAS seven in the morning." He motioned to her clock. "It's one-thirty in the afternoon."

Shit. He was right. "Well, the one looked like a seven under the covers..."

His wry smile turned into a grin. "I guess the painkillers are still pretty strong."

"I guess." She dropped back down on the bed and stretched out. He began to pace the room, examining the walls, TV, furniture. "There's a phone in the bathroom for emergencies," she told him.

He laughed. "I can only imagine what kind of emergency that would be. Maybe one involving Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston."

She snickered at his poor attempt at humor. "I can't believe you even know about that. Your nose is usually so far into anything classical that I'm amazed you're aware of popular culture."

Goren rounded the corner from the bathroom, where he had been checking out the phone, and made a face at her. "I know enough to know about your platinum albums, missy."

She smiled with her eyes closed, refraining from a chuckle. "Maybe, but I'm willing to bet you've never heard a single song."

He sat down on the bed. "You might be surprised."

"You're kidding."

"Nope."

"Okay, which one?"

He cocked his head at her. "Actually," he stated proudly,"I have all four. And I can sing each song, too."

Her eyes popped open at him. "No way...you are definitely bullshitting me, Goren!"

He laughed again. "Okay...I did go out and buy two when I first joined the squad. The first and the last. I wanted to see what you had been about and what I was supposedly missing. But--"

"Supposedly?"

"What?"

"You said 'supposedly missing'. That's a slam!"

"Rayden--" he drew her last name out with exasperation. "I'm trying to tell you I went back and bought the other two. The third one is actually my favorite."

This time she rolled over on her side, looking at him. He was still smiling, looking as though he had triumphed at Jeopardy! or something. "That's funny," she said, a sleepy smile crossing her face. "The third one's my favorite too."

"It's very...um, intense...raw, almost."

"Yes." She kicked at the sheets, readjusting them between her knees. "I was in a--well--raw place, I suppose."

"Well, you certainly didn't hold back in self-expression."

She guessed he was referring to the cursing, or perhaps to the sexual overtones. "In that field you don't get very far if you hold back." She paused, debating about what to share, knowing her mind was cloudy and not fully functional. "I guess it's one of the reasons I'm in this field now instead of that one."

"You're kind of an enigma," he said, as he leaned back on the pillow next to her. "I don't know of anyone else that comes to mind who had such success and fame and walked away from it. And then went on to get a Ph.D. in forensic psychology. Maybe you're kind of my hero."

She shot him an upward glance. Sure enough, he was teasing her. She figured as much. Although he probably really did think that she had hopped straight from a recording studio into the psychology department at NYU. Given his genius status, he could be pretty obtuse about certain things.

"Well," she said, "there was some stuff in the middle." Afraid of him asking about what the "stuff" might have included, she changed the subject. "So you must be enjoying the spot of top profiler again in my absence."

His face lost its lightness. "Nobody is enjoying anything in your absence, Vanessa." For a moment he stared away, then turned back to her. "We're going to get him. Round the clock, Deakins says. This is one of our own. You're going to be comfortable in your own apartment again, if it's the last goddamn thing I do."

She felt it start before she could will it back down. She turned and pressed her head into the pillow, hoping, praying that he didn't see; that somehow she could keep this one shred of dignity still intact from him. He had been there that night; wiped off the vomit; covered her body with a blanket. She knew he had seen too much already.

If he saw now, he ignored it. He didn't move; didn't try to touch her or ease her pain with gentle words. His lack of contact bore more honesty and truth in it than if he had tried some ill-conceived notion of comfort. She knew why he was there anyway; he didn't need to explain. It would be this way until it wasn't--with Goren and Eames and Deakins taking turns with her. She would have done the same thing.

After several minutes, she turned her head slightly to catch some air. She always hated it when her head was hot.

"How's my dog?' she asked.

He had relaxed lower on the pillow, so he was now laying next to her, his face looking at hers. "Good," he responded, the sly smile returning. "He said to tell you he wished he could be here, but he's busy with Vivaldi and Kong."

She snorted, then closed her eyes again. "I miss him, Goren."

"We'll go for a visit soon. Right now, you rest."

And sleep came again.

***********************************************

"So." Her captain motioned to the passenger door of the SUV. "How'd it go in there?"

Vanessa rolled her eyes after she passed him on the sidewalk and hopped in the car...or at least, hopped in to the best of her healing body's ability. "Great," she told him. "I feel tons better already. When do I get to come back to work again?"

Deakins grimaced at her question. Sighing, he turned on the ignition and put the car into gear. "It's only been two weeks, Vanessa. Let's say we give you enough time to physically heal first...and you know the brass wants you to finish with this shrink--you're a liability until you're cleared by one of your own."

"Hmph." Vanessa dug her heels into the floor of the SUV's carpet. "You know, shrinks can see through the tricks of other shrinks. It's kind of like magicians watching magic shows. We know the answer before the question's done being asked."

Deakins cracked a smile. He couldn't help himself. For all the trash this one talked, she was one of his favorites. Smart as a whip and the best damn profiler he'd ever worked with. Even topped Goren...and that was saying something.

"You want to stop on the way back to get something to eat?" he asked her. "You've gotta be sick of that hotel food. I know a great diner a couple of blocks from here."

"Oh yeah, diner food...I'm feeling really special today...shrinks and diners! I think I'll pass." She began to pick at her fingernail, as though there were something inherently interesting about it. The last thing she wanted to end up doing was eating with her captain. She knew he was worried and it was harder holding your boss at bay. Truth was, Deakins had been nothing short of fantastic to her the entire time she'd worked for him. This latest...event...was no exception. Every night he called to check on her. He transported her to her therapy sessions when time allowed and gave her coworkers ample flexibility to spend time with her. Hell, his wife even sent over food on a regular basis. Sometimes, when she allowed herself, she wondered what it would have been like to have a dad like Jimmy. All the fussing and protectiveness was probably taken for granted by his own kids. She found herself thinking that if her dad had been a shred like Deakins, she probably would have never lived the life she had...never pushed so many envelopes, never lived so heaviily on the edge, never challenged herself to get to where she was at. In another life, she would have thrived on the nurturing that a man like Deakins could provide. But as it was, now, it just made her extremely uncomfortable.

He pulled up in front of the Wyndham. "So, since you're not eating, what are your plans for this afternoon?"

"Oh, big ones. I'm going to finish Goren's copy of War and Peace."

This got a chuckle from Deakins. "You know, you can't sleep your life away, Vanessa. When do you go back to the doctor?"

Again, the fingernail. God, she'd never noticed all the ridges in her nails! Definitely something to be learned from close observation. "Uh, tomorrow I think." She forced herself to look at him. "Don't worry...I'll eat some of Angie's leftover soup, do a bit on the treadmill, THEN finish War and Peace. I'm good."

The furrow of concern on his brow lifted for a moment. "Yeah," he agreed, "Angie does make good soup."

"You got yourself a keeper there, Captain."

He chuckled. "I hope so...only been twenty years."

She grabbed her bag from the bottom of the car and opened the door. "Thanks for the ride. You know, it's not necessary...I can take a cab..."

"Vanessa--"

"I know," she replied lightly. "Friends don't let friends take cabs."

He smiled at her and laid his right hand on the seat she had just been sitting in. His face suddenly became serious. "You know, if you ever need to talk, you can call me anytime, right?"

"Yeah, Jimmy." She let herself use his first name, just this once. "I know."

She backed away from the car, onto the curb, and watched him merge back into the Manhattan traffic. After a minute, she sighed, pulled out her key card, and headed for her room.

**************************************************

Five miles an hour on the treadmill was her highest and it was killing her. What the hell was this? It's not like Forrester had broken her kneecaps or caused severe internal injury. She gritted her teeth, determined to finish the sixty minutes she had set for herself.

Goren had brought over a ton of his favorite "informational literature", as he liked to call it, for her to peruse. She guessed that he thought their brains must share similar interests since they were both profilers, and he considered her to be intelligent. Currently she had his latest copy of Smithsonian magazine perched on the treadmill. God, she couldn't understand how he could read this stuff. Flipping through that magazine was more torturous than the treadmill itself.

Her thoughts drifted to her apartment, her own workout room, with her own treadmill, elliptical, and weights. One of the benefits of being a young millionairess...toys you don't have to share. For a moment, she missed her top of the line treadmill. She usually did eight miles an hour in a run and enjoyed it. She had privacy, she could sweat and curse and even look like Phoebe on "Friends" if she wanted to. Not in the middle of the Wyndham, though. There were two older men, both sweating profusely, one on another treadmill and the other on a recumbent bike. For a second she imagined herself as Phoebe, coupled with several choice curse words, and tried not to laugh. Certainly it would have made for a memorable workout session.

She wondered if the cleanup crew was done with her place yet. She know CSU had processed it while she was still in the hospital, and as soon as Deakins had told her they were done with it she had called a cleaning company to do a deep clean. Happy Housekeeping or something like that. She made sure they knew what they would be dealing with. She had a hard time imagining anyone being happy about cleaning up her vomit and blood.

Except maybe Keith Forrester. For the first time she let her thoughts linger on him, how she had fought him, viciously, and for a minute thought she might just get away. Then he had grabbed her hair and she went down. Down hard, on the edge of the coffee table. Blood everywhere. She could taste it on her tongue, metallic and warm. And when he had leaned forward, trying desperately to force himself into her mouth, she had vomited.

He had rubbed her face in it. Called her a frigid bitch. Told her she got what she deserved. Some psychologist you are, he mocked her as he hit her with his belt, kicked her all over her body. Call your friends. Call your captain. You and I both know we move in a different circle than they do. And the rules are different, baby...different rules.

Fuck you, she had thought as she lay there waiting for him to finish foisting his anger on her. Somewhere in the back of her mind she remembered reading about the vomiting trick, and found it highly ironic that she didn't plan it but it worked all the same. He took his time after the beating, smoking a cigarette and flipping through the channels on her television while she lay there, covered in blood and puke and unable to move. Then, as he readied himself to leave, he had tossed her the cell.

"Go ahead, genius." He bent down next to her head, and flicked her with his fingers on the cheek. The cigarette butt burned into her hand. "Call your friends. I bet half the squad will have a hard on to get over here and save you."

She had managed to dial 911. Give enough information to get help. When the first cops and EMTs arrived, she felt relief. It wasn't until she saw Goren and Eames following them that she felt what she had dreaded the most: shame.

*******************************************

"Beautiful day, huh?" Goren was in an upbeat mood. Upbeat for him, anyway. She tried to keep up with him, practically jogging to make her two steps count for each of his own. Being a full thirteen inches shorter than him didn't help. "How's the reading going?"

"Great," she lied. "That Smithsonian magazine is top-notch."

He looked pleased. "I knew you'd like it." He rounded the corner and pointed to a small apartment building. "This is it," he said. "I know he'll be glad to see you."

Vanessa followed him inside and up the stairs to the second floor. He motioned to number 206. She stepped behind him as he jiggled the keys in the lock. Before the door was opened, she could hear him on the other side, his large body shifting its weight to its feet, moving toward the door. By the time Bobby had opened it, Vanessa found herself pushing him aside to get to Bruce.

She knelt down to Bruce's face-level. "Hey, baby," she cooed, scratching him behind the short brown ears. "God, have I missed you!" Bruce's tail wagged eagerly and he licked her cheek, seemingly trying to affirm for her that he had missed her just as much.. Vanessa found herself sitting cross-legged, with Bruce's front paws on her shoulders, as the large dog continued to whimper and lick her cheek and her hair. "Get down," she laughed, patting the ground. After a moment, Bruce settled down against his mistress, tail still thumping, as Vanessa continued to rub and stroke his head.

Bobby had been standing by the doorway, watching the reunion. It was the first time he had heard a genuine laugh, seen a genuine smile, from Vanessa since the attack. And the same could be said for Bruce, he thought, if he spoke dog. Bobby had gotten used to Bruce's habits over the last few weeks. He was an older dog, slower and liked to be left alone. Kind of like himself, Bobby had thought. They enjoyed their runs together and Bruce seemed to appreciate (as much as a dog could) Bobby's efforts to make him feel at home. But this level of excitement, of thrill, was nothing like he had seen before from Bruce. He suddenly realized that Vanessa hadn't been kidding when she had told him how much she missed this dog.

"You wanna take him for a walk?" Goren asked. "The park's just a couple blocks from here. I've got a leash and it's a beautiful day."

She grinned at him. "Yeah," she said, "I think you already announced that." Rubbing Bruce's chin, she said softly, "You wanna go for a walk, big guy? With me?"

Bruce pulled himself up again, tail still wagging, body wriggling like a dog half his age. Vanessa stroked his face while Bobby put the leash on his neck, and handed it to her. She looked surprised for a moment, but took it from him wordlessly and let Bruce lead them out of the apartment.

They walked for awhile in silence, with Bruce leading, following the closest sidewalk through Central Park. Bruce's pace was generally slower than Bobby's, which was comfortable for her but just a tad bit slower than ambling for Bobby.

"You run, right?" he asked her, bringing her out of her reverie. She had been thinking about her animal companion and how much she was enjoying his presence. She had nearly forgotten Goren was by her side.

"Uh, yeah," she finally responded. "But I'm pretty slow these days."

Again, that damn grin. "I hear ya, Rayden...let's see what you've got."

She began to protest, but he had already taken off. Like a lightening bolt, Bruce was following him, and she suddenly found herself along for the ride. Trying to steady herself without losing the leash, she picked up speed and began the chase.

Chase, she thought. Good name for it. Goren in the lead, Bruce heading after him, and she--with her short, sore legs--following both of them.

Goren turned around to tease her. "Surely you're as fast as your arthritic dog, Rayden!"

"You better watch out!" she returned, but it was too late. Mr. Hot Shot had just tripped over a hole in the concrete. She hoped his sweats had ripped at the knees.

Vanessa and Bruce caught up with him quickly. More out of duty than worry she asked him if he was okay. Goren lay back down on the sidewalk, his big frame covering the majority of the width of it, feet hanging off in the grass. "I don't know," he said. "I think my pride is mortally wounded."

She sat next to his feet, butt on the grass, and Bruce settled next to her. "Served you right," she told him, picking bits of weeds and tossing them aside. "Teasing an old dog about how slow he runs."

She suddenly became aware of his hand on her calf and shin, just below the knee. He continued to look at the sky, like he was thinking. She had found, previously, when he looked like he was thinking it was because he usually was. Unlike some people, including herself, who used the facial expression to avoid conversation or confrontation, Goren usually was pondering all things logical and possible when his face took on the look of someone thinking.

Not sure she wanted to know, she asked him. "What are you thinking about?"

He sighed deeply, continuing to look at the clouds, and didn't answer. His hand began to stroke her calf softly, just an inch or two back and forth with his thumb. She trusted him, and although it was pretty unusual for him to touch her, it didn't particularly make her uncomfortable. Besides, he had seen her naked, even if it was under extenuating circumstances.

"You," he finally replied. "You and your pride."

She wanted to hide. She wanted to run again, as fast as she could, damn the five miles an hour and the arthritic dog next to her. She wished she had never asked the question. She felt her body freeze, her muscles tighten, her breath becoming more ragged but guarded. She wanted him to go away. She wanted *this*--this whatever it was, guilt, shame, emptiness, fear, whatever--to go away, far away, so that she could go back to being Rayden and he would be Goren and there would be Eames and Deakins and work and her apartment and everything how it used to be.

He continued to hold onto her leg, almost as though he sensed her flight response and was afraid she would go with it and leave. After several more minutes, he finally spoke.

"I guess I just want you to know that I'm here for you. Not out of pity, because I know you can handle yourself. But as a friend. Everyone needs friends sometimes. You're like me...you build up these walls and keep people at bay, with this mighty attempt to be independent and keep the world from seeing your need. The irony is, for people like you and me, is that our need is just as great and everyone sees it anyway."

She pulled her legs away from him, and he withdrew his hand. "Here," she said, handing him the leash. "You can walk him back."

He took the leash and they began to walk back toward his apartment. He hadn't expected her to answer him, and she didn't. But she kept pace with him the whole way back, every once in awhile glancing at Bruce. Once or twice he was certain, when she thought he wasn't looking, that she glanced at him, too.

Up to 206 again. He fed and watered Bruce, petting him and calling him "good boy." She knew it wasn't just for her benefit, that he clearly felt affection for her dog. Pacing into his living room, she began to scan the bookshelves. He must have his own library. Somewhere in the back of her mind she remembered his mother had been a librarian, before she ended up in a nuthouse. Not nice, she scolded herself.

He had a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird. She pulled it off the shelf and thumbed through it, recalling her eighth grade english teacher's assignment to read the book and write an opinion paper on how prejudice affected people. She had written about Boo Radley.

"You've read it before?" She looked up. He was standing near her, flexing the balls of his feet, arms crossed. "You wanna borrow it?"

"Yeah, maybe. And I read it in eighth grade. I wrote an opinion paper on how people's prejudices and preconceived ideas kept them from seeing Boo Radley for who he really was."

He looked at her then, a different look; darker, scrutinizing. A profiler look. What the hell did I say to make that happen?

"Well, feel free. I guess I should take you back now...it's getting late and I have some cases I need to look over tonight."

"Okay." She tucked the book under her arm and turned to the dog. After scratching Bruce under the chin for a couple of minutes, she said her goodbye and they climbed down the stairs again, and he guided her to his mustang.

He saw her up to her room. They had sat mostly in silence since leaving his place, but it was a comfortable silence, one that was intimate between friends who understood each other. Or so she thought.

She pressed in the key card and turned to face him. "Thanks for the visit. And for the book-" she motioned under her arm.

He nodded. "Anytime." She stepped into the room but instead of closing the door, his hand stayed on it, and he looked at her hesitantly.

"Vanessa," he said softly. "Preconceived notions hurt lots of people." His voice caught for a moment. She knew where he was going and she wanted to desperately shove her fingers in her ears.

But he said it anyway, thickly, trying to steel his own emotion. "This was not your fault."

She fell asleep that night with his damn Smithsonian magazine next to her.

****************************************

She woke up, sweating profusely and shaking as if she were in the Tundra. This wasn't the first nightmare she'd had, but one of the worst. A moment later she knew why, what had permeated her sleep and caused the visions. Thunder crashed once more and lightening briefly lit up the room. The sudden brightness and startling sound threw her back to that night, to when she let him up--

"It's pouring out here, Keith...let's finish this inside."

Her heart was racing, pounding in her ears and the blood--she felt it gushing through her body, senselessly frantic. She flipped on the light and began to desperately search for something, anything, the doctor might have given her that would calm her down. Would painkillers work? She wasn't sure she wanted to find out.

The booming again. She hated this feeling, hated the fear of being in her own skin. When had she gotten this way? When did she turn into this...this frightened little girl? She couldn't think. Slipping on her shoes, she grabbed her room key. There was no way in hell she was staying alone. If she were at home, she would be buried in the bed with Bruce by her side, knowing that the gigantic dog would be watching for any foreboding. Dammit, if he couldn't be with her, she would be with him.

She entered the elevator and pressed the button to the lobby. On the seventh floor, an older man entered and she felt her heart beating even faster. Goddammit, she was going to give herself a heart attack. She thought about Bruce and how long it should take her to get to him. Bobby lived about fifteen minutes away in light traffic, so inside a half an hour she should be with her dog. The man had turned to her and said something, smiling a bit oddly, but she didn't hear it. She held her keycard tightly in her hand, thinking she could jab his eye out quickly if she had to. When they reached the lobby, she pushed past him quickly, ignoring his surprised expression, and headed into the street.

It was pouring, thunder and lightening coming faster now, and she could hear his words: "Are you sure you want me to come up?"

She hopped into the cab and gave the address to Goren's place. The sky lit up like a firework display. It had been romantic that night, when she had seen it with him. She remembered how they laughed together at the lightening; he had said it was no surprise that she could summon lightening from the sky for him. She remembered how her heart had warmed and his hand had held hers and they had sat in the car for an extra several minutes, watching the sky and kissing softly in between strikes.

"Hurry", she said to the cabbie, but maybe it was only in her head. The cabbie didn't seem to go any faster but didn't slow down either. She couldn't get the images out of her brain, couldn't make it go away. When she had seen him earlier that day, after so many years away from the business; when she had met him for dinner; when she had sat with him in the car. When she invited him into her home. When she thought that, maybe, after all these years, she had found the one. The one who would finally end the loneliness inside.

She felt sick. The cabbie pulled up in front of Goren's building and she shoved some bills into his hand before opening the door and vomiting on the sidewalk. Talk about deja-vu, she thought, as she heard the cabbie say, "Hey lady, you okay?"

"Yeah," she muttered, clumsily stumbling out of the cab, doing her best to avoid her half-digested dinner on the sidewalk. Already the rain was washing it away, swirling it down into the street and the gutter and she thought about when Goren had reached her that night and said, "Wait--", then wiped her face gently with the corner of his shirt, because there was nothing else within reach. Now she stood there entranced, watching it disappear from her, before the thunder roared again and she ran into the building, up the stairs, to 206.

Now that she was here, even in her stir-crazy state, she realized how this would look. She hadn't even called him. She was wet and sick and hyperventilating, showing up at her coworker's door at--what the hell time was it?--in the morning. All because of a storm. Who did this? Who ran out of a perfectly safe hotel room to go to Brooklyn in the middle of the night, in the middle of a storm, because they got scared of some thunder and a little lightening? Furthermore, what was she going to say to him? "Hey, I came over to visit with Bruce, hope you don't mind"? Maybe she should be in the nuthouse with his mother. She shifted her weight against his door, trying desperately to catch her breath and clear her mind. She could still hear the storm outside, still intense, but not as frightening now. She closed her eyes for a minute, thinking about Bruce being on the other side of the door. Maybe she could just sit out here for awhile, and Goren would never know. She wouldn't have to tell him. She'd sit in close proximity to her dog and when she calmed down, she would hail another cab and go back to the Wyndham. Yes. That she could do.

She slid her back down the door frame and pulled her knees up to her chest. God, she was tired. Not sleepy-tired, but exhausted by life tired. The thought of Bruce on the other side of the door relaxed her. She wished there was no door for a moment. That she could just be with her protector.

Suddenly, she heard the lock jiggle from the inside and the door opened. She scrambled to her feet, suddenly horribly aware of how all of this looked--her desperate and crazed, soaked and vomit-y, sitting outside his apartment like some shit-faced stalker. But he didn't look at her with confusion or repulsion or even surprise. "Hey," he said softly, "It's late and it's cooler in here. You want to come in?"

Immediately their conversation from the other day came to mind, about her pride and she saw it, realized what he was trying to do--to protect the little she had left--but suddenly it didn't matter anymore. She stepped across the entryway and he closed the door. She started to say something about her dog and needing to see him, but Goren was handing her a towel. She wrapped it around her shoulders and shuddered as he handed her a glass of water.

After a moment, he said, "The bed isn't great, but it's relatively comfortable. Not the Wyndham for sure. But Bruce likes it."

She looked at him, suddenly finding words. "You--you, uh, sleep with my dog?"

He smiled. "I think it's his habit--"

"Yes," she replied quickly. "Yes, it is." She didn't see Bruce and was surprised suddenly, that this animal she had needed to reach so desperately seemed to be completely unaware of her trauma.

Goren had disappeared into the bedroom, leaving her to contemplate her water glass and towel. She went to the sink, wet the towel and washed off her face. She hoped she hadn't breathed on him. She wondered if there was a way she could sneak into the bathroom to use some mouthwash or something, when she saw him reappear with a change of clothes.

"These will probably be warmer and more comfortable for you." She looked at what he had handed her. A navy colored tee shirt, way too big and long, and some bright pink running shorts in a size too small. Was he kidding? Did he have a weird fetish or just recycle old girlfriends' clothing for other women to wear? She choked on a laugh, but it rose out of her anyway, and she began laughing hard, harder. "Are these YOURS?" she gasped.

He crossed his arms, looking just a tad bit annoyed, and cocked his head at her. "Um, no. Pink isn't my color."

She continued to laugh, harder, until the laughter turned into hysterics that turned into gulping sobs and she found herself pulled into his big arms as she gasped for air against him.

He didn't say anything but led her to the bedroom. His bathroom was connected, and without looking at him she dutifully entered and closed the door, putting on the tee but refusing the shorts. They would have squeezed her butt all night, anyway. He did have mouthwash, and she took a swig before thinking about what HE would think of her swigging from his mouthwash bottle. At last she opened the door, and he was sitting on the edge of the bed in the dark, facing the bathroom. Now she could see clearly that Bruce was laying behind him, taking up two-thirds of the bottom of the bed.

She stood still for a moment, then mumbled, "I, um. I needed to see him....he always sleeps with me through storms."

Bobby stood up and moved out of the way, and she lay down next to the big dog, curling a hand on his chest. She heard Bruce exhale, but he didn't wake. She pressed her face into the back of his head and smelled him, familiar, and buried her tears into the covers between them. After a moment, she felt a blanket softly covering her, then her head being coaxed upward by a pillow. As though she were a child, she thought, although she had no recollection of anyone ever treating her like this when she was little.

Goren sat on his knees by her head and stroked her hair. The thunder had stopped but was now starting again, and he knew it was a trigger for her. He also knew she'd never admit it--never let him in, never tell him her weaknesses, never tell him what honestly drove her to him. He knew this because he knew himself, and he was very much like her.

He found himself relaxing, listening to her breathing. It had slowed and was soft and rhythmic, like that day in the hospital. He tried not to think of what had put her there, of the fact that he'd been searching for Forrester around the clock, but the guy seemed to have more money and friends than God Himself. He hadn't told any of this to her but he knew he didn't need to. She knew Keith Forrester. She knew what he had, had been friends with him back when she lived her other life. Bringing up details that she already knew wouldn't help in the slightest. So he continued to listen to her breathe, watch her chest inhale and exhale, stroke the hair on her forehead.

And then: "I let him in."

He already knew that. Crime scene investigators had determined very quickly that this hadn't been a break-in. No--just a typical date-rape gone wrong. Typical--had he really thought that? Had he ever thought that about a victim's situation?

His hand never stopped playing with her hair, but he noticed the change in her breathing; more ragged now, more afraid. He spoke low, almost whispering. "To hurt you? Surely that wasn't your intent."

The tears continued and she shuddered against his hand. He almost wished he could retract the words from her, afraid that he may have pushed too far by forcing her to acknowledge the obvious--that this was Forrester's plan, not hers.

"Maybe he had a reason to think...to expect..." she shuddered again. "You don't know how I lived back then."

"I can imagine," he countered softly. "But to the best of my knowledge, there's no inherent permission for sex that's given by opening a door to one's home, regardless of what one does with others." He didn't like his word choice but had plowed ahead anyway, not knowing how else to express himself.

She relaxed against his hand again, her breathing became more regular, and he could sense she had stopped crying. Her hands were still wrapped in Bruce's fur. He got the impression that Bruce spent a lot of time with her hands wrapped in his fur.

After several minutes, she whispered, "I'm not a bad person. I'm not. Tell me I'm not."

For the first time in two months, since he had seen her there naked and bleeding, surrounded by cops and EMTs and approaching the situation as a detective, with complete professional objectivity, he felt his heart sink dangerously into the pit of his stomach. He swallowed hard, determined not to let it show in his voice. "No," he said, perhaps a little too firmly. "You're not a bad person."

One of her hands left Bruce's fur then and snaked up to meet his, in her hair. He brought his hand down to hold hers, and she drew both hands close to her face. "I believe you," she whispered, "because you don't lie to me," and he pressed his forehead against the side of the bed, waiting for the storm to pass.

********************************************

A warm, soft nuzzling against her cheek. Strange smells and singing. Fighting against the sunshine, Vanessa opened her eyes to see Bruce snuggling against her body, giving her occasional gentle kisses on the cheek.

She squinted at him for a moment. "You're so good, Bruce. I miss you every day."

The singing was in the front room. She recognized it quickly by the lyrics--a song from her third album. Clarity was the name of the song--she had written it literally in twenty minutes, and it was one of the songs that still rang truest to her. Thank God she remembered the lyrics, because apparently Goren couldn't carry a tune in a bucket.

She stretched out in the bed a little further, pondering last night's events. Stupid thunderstorms. She'd always been afraid of them, even as a kid. Usually her mom just sent her to sit in their bathroom until the storm finished. It was really exciting, to be exiled to a bathroom, while you waited for your house to be demolished and burned to the ground.

She was suddenly aware that the singing had stopped. Footsteps in the hallway seemed closer, and then she saw him peering into his own room. The man did a lot of peering. It would be creepy if he wasn't a cop.

"You're up," he announced, as though he had expected her to sleep all day.

"Yeah," she replied. "I was enjoying the concert."

He smiled then, a bit shyly, and she even thought there might have been a bit of a blush to his cheeks. "Sorry about that," he said, handing her a coffee cup. "I, uh, like that song a lot. I thought you were still asleep."

"S'okay," she mumbled, taking a long sip of the coffee. Even though they'd only been working together for a couple of years, Goren had made it his business to know about her coffee. About a week after they had first become acquainted, he had asked what she liked in hers. She found it an odd question. She always mixed her own coffee. Eames had rolled her eyes, and later confided, "Let him do it. He's good with details and he's never brought me a bad cup."

Sure enough, he had remembered exactly what she liked--full caffeine, half and half, two sweeteners. The bitter aroma helped to ease the sunlight's brilliance against her eyes. Her eyes were tired. From the crying, she thought. Good God, he probably thought she was insane showing up at his place like that. She glanced at him now, sitting in the extra armchair, regarding his coffee with that same thoughtful expression on his face. She wondered if he was thinking about cases or what to do today or how to dump her off at the nearest bus stop.

"Sorry for crashing last night," she finally said, trying to sound casual, dismissive, even. "That was just insane of me. Storms have always freaked me out and for some reason, I just went a little nuts for a bit."

Now he looked at her, studying her carefully. He was silent, sipping his coffee; but looked at her face intently, as though he were trying to read something written on there, hidden between the lines. It made her nervous.

"I guess, um, I"ll get my stuff and get out of your way." He continued to regard her silently, sipping his coffee, and her nervousness began to give way to irritation. Why the hell was he staring at her like that? She kicked her legs out from under the blanket and started to look around for her clothes.

"Rayden, you're not in my way. And your clothes are in the dryer."

She stopped and looked at him. He was still studying her in between sips of coffee.

"Why do you keep looking at me like that, Goren? It's...uncomfortable."

He shifted in the chair. "Sorry," he said. "I'm just trying to think of how to say something to you."

She sat back down on his bed. "Okay, so say it."

He sighed. "It's not that easy."

"Okay again," she replied. "Then don't say it. I'm going to go get dressed."

He started to speak. "You need to go back to your place. If for no other reason than to clear your stuff out. And you can't keep living in a hotel. That's not a home. It's a transitional place for people who are traveling."

Rayden felt her face flush. Out of embarrassment, partly, but more out of anger. Who was he, or anyone else for that matter, to set a timetable for her recovery? She'd go back when she was damn good and ready, and it was none of his business anyway.

"I see." She crossed her arms in front of her. "Looks like there's more than one shrink on the payroll."

"No. Just a friend."

She huffed at him. "Okay, friend. Since you've got this whole thing worked out, and I'm supposed to move my stuff out of my old place while moving out of the Wyndham, where the hell am I supposed to live? Here with you?"

He looked straight at her. "Yes. For now."

"For now." She couldn't believe this.

"Yes. Until you find another place."

The anger, fear, shame rose up in her like a wave she had lost control over. She knew now, knew she had let him see too much, let him in too far. Trusted him beyond what was safe and workable. She was more naked now than she had been that night, she thought, knowing his eyes were still watching her movements, profiling her like he would a suspect. She had underestimated his intelligence, mistaken his profiling for sympathy and kindness. What an idiot she was. She felt betrayed; he was supposed to be her friend. He was supposed to understand that there are some things they wouldn't do or talk about or even acknowledge. She wasn't supposed to be treated like one of his case files.

Yet here he was, pushing the envelope, hell, opening the envelope under her very nose. Demanding that she go back through something he couldn't even imagine. Like holding his hand would make a difference. Like he could live in her head and make the nightmares stop, the memories vanish, the anguish disappear. Well, he might be able to take an educated guess as to what was in there, but he couldn't take up residence.

She pulled herself away from Bruce and stood from the bed, then turned to face him. Using the most logical, least emotional voice she could muster, she said, "I need to go back to the hotel. I'm not going to do this right now...in fact, I'm not moving in with you, period. You're a forty-something single man who needs his space, and whether you believe it or not, I'm an adult as well who usually can handle herself just fine. I'm sorry about last night." She felt the tears welling but willed them to stay hidden. "I can see it was a bad idea to come here...it gave you ideas that aren't accurate about me."

He didn't say anything, but continued to sit in the chair, sipping his coffee. She wandered out to the front room, looking for the dryer, and found it off of the kitchen. Her clothes were warm and dry, and she took them and re-entered the bathroom without looking at him. Closing the door, she let out the shaky breath she'd been holding. She washed her face and dressed, and after pondering for a moment if she dare use his toothbrush, she opted for swishing with his mouthwash out of the bottle again. Then she sat on the toilet and waited until she felt ready to face him again.

She opened the door and lay the borrowed tee shirt on the corner of the bed, neatly folded. She didn't know why she had folded it since he would need to wash it anyway, but she felt it was the polite thing to do.

"You think I'm profiling you."

It was a statement, not a question. She sighed. She liked Goren, and he had been nothing but incredibly kind to her since this whole thing started. But old habits died hard, and knowing that he had a view to the window of her soul, albeit a tiny one, was incredibly disconcerting. Honesty, she felt, was sometimes overrated.

But maybe not this time.

"Yes." She didn't look at him but focused her attention on Bruce, who was now sitting up, lazily scratching his ear. "I've told you more than I should. You've seen more than you should. I feel uncomfortable. I feel..." she paused.

"Exposed," he finished. "And you're afraid that if you lean any more the walls are going to go down even lower, and I'll see even more. And we both know what happens when people get in like that. We've both lived through that."

She looked back at him now, head on. "I know you have good intentions. I know you care about me. I know you are incredibly loyal and you will do everything in your power to find Forrester. And please know I appreciate that. But I have to be able to care for myself, Goren." She used his last name intentionally, to remind him of their professional relationship, that she was his coworker first and to see her as such.

It didn't work. "Do you want to know what I know?" he said. "You've never asked."

"About what?"

"About what happened to you."

She didn't answer, but stood again. She began to poke around for her shoes.

"He's a music producer. You met him ten years ago, when you were working on your last album. He's 43, single, ladies' man. You ran into him at lunch that day and he invited you out to dinner. My guess is to catch up on old times."

"Where are my shoes?"

"After dinner, he took you for a drive before going home. Somebody spotted his car in a lot off of 56th. You liked him and trusted him. You invited him in."

She found one random sock under the edge of his bed, but it wasn't hers. She kept looking, trying her best to ignore him.

"He wanted sex and you didn't. He tried to force you and you pulled away from him. CSU found hair--he caught you by it, I'm guessing--and you hit your head on the coffee table. If he hadn't been lucky, you'd have gotten away. He tried to assault you and you vomited. He got angry and began to attack you, finally burning your hand."

Vanessa grabbed one of her crocs from under the bed. "Here's one," she said, as though he hadn't spoken a word.

"It's not a secret and I'm tired of pretending that it is with you. And I'm tired of seeing one of the strongest women I have ever known hide in a hotel room from the world. Just because she doesn't want to face what happened to her."

She slipped the croc on and lay on the floor, looking for the second shoe.

"You know if I had the chance I'd shoot that son of a bitch in the balls. Right here. Right now."

She stopped moving.

"After I gave you the opportunity to pull a Lorena Bobbit. Then two shots. Ball one, ball two."

Vanessa sat up and peered over the top of the bed at him. He was looking intently at her, and for a minute--a real minute--she believed he really would.

"You're not that accurate with a gun, Goren."

"I've been practicing."

She regarded him quietly. Now he'd said it all. It's all out. No more pretending that he doesn't know what he does, she thought. She didn't know what to do, what to think. No one had ever stuck by her through something difficult, nevermind something like this.

"I don't want to be a burden to you," she finally said. "Like I said, you deserve to have company--"

"Yeah," he snorted. "Don't believe everything you hear."

They sat there, neither moving, him in the chair and her on the floor. After several minutes she spoke.

"All right. I'm not going back to the apartment right now. If you don't get that, I can't help you understand it any better. It's too much still. I don't care if i never go back. But I'll stay here for a couple of weeks, until I can find another apartment. I can take care of Bruce and probably do something about those pitiful things you call plants on your balcony."

"I can live with that." He stood up and stepped toward her. "Here," he said, handing her the other shoe. She shook her head. She should have known he had it.

"One more question, Goren." She stood up and looked at him. "Who sleeps where?"

Now he smiled. "Well," he said, "apparently Bruce sleeps at the end of the bed, so I guess that just leaves you and me to figure out." Seeing her skeptical face, he laughed awkwardly. "You can sleep in here with Bruce and I'll take the couch. It's kind of like the bed--more comfortable than it looks." He touched her upper arm gently. "Let's go get your stuff and check you out."

Still unsure, still unsettled, but she nodded. "Okay."

*************************************

Vanessa regarded Goren's coffee pot with great interest. She hadn't seen one like this since...hmm...did they have them like this when she was a kid? God bless Starbucks, she thought to herself. Actually brewing a cup for herself was a foreign concept. She realized she was absolutely spoiled in this way, but she figured she paid other people good money for a good brew, and that's what money was for. However, she didn't have time to run down the street before he'd be out of the shower, dressed, and ready to leave. Since she was staying with him, she figured the least she could do was make him a cup of coffee in the morning. Besides, she knew he would worry if she slept too late--he thought she spent her whole day in bed, moping. She wasn't naive enough to be unaware that his worry was part of the reason she was here; he wanted to keep a closer watch on her. Whether Deakins or anyone else was in on it, she didn't know, but then again she was the one who had chosen to turn to Goren the most in the last several weeks. He had her dog, was closer in proximity to her hotel, and hell, sometimes he even seemed to understand her a little bit.

Water, filter, coffee. Nope, not working. This was definitely not her thing. Maybe she'd just give him five bucks to pick up a cup on the way in, her treat. What did he eat for breakfast other than those nasty donuts he was so fond of bringing Eames? She had no idea. Toast, maybe? What do men eat for breakfast, anyway? All the men she'd known either chowed down like they hadn't eaten in years or skipped it like she did. Goren was a cop so his penchant for donuts was come by honestly, she snickered to herself. Good one. She'd have to share that at the right moment.

"Good morning," he said, appearing from the bedroom doorway. His hair was still damp but he was completely dressed--suit, tie, jacket--and she suddenly knew the answer to the breakfast question. He skipped. Of course he did, she thought. Otherwise, how could he put away those enormous pastrami on ryes at lunch? "Trying to get coffee started?"

"Um, yeah," she laughed, suddenly realizing how pathetic she probably looked. If she were him, she'd think she was some princess-y diva, not knowing how to operate a coffee maker. "Actually, I had thought I would have it ready for you before you left, but I'm not familiar with your coffee maker's inner workings..."

He raised one eyebrow at her, then placed the filter in the top, added the coffee and water, closed it and turned it on. "Give me a break," he said. "You've never made yourself a cup in your life."

Now she raised her eyebrow at him. "I don't need to," she said defensively. "That's what hotels do. You know, transitional housing for people who are traveling? Besides, I pay Starbucks good money every day to make me exactly what I want."

He chuckled. "You'd save yourself a lot more money if you'd learn how to dump the shit in and press a button."

"Mmm, right," she said sarcastically. "That's why YOU always stop to bring Eames those nasty donuts and fancy lattes. Because you're all about the thrift."

"Heh. I'm all about making my partner happy. It makes for a better work relationship. Have you ever tried to work with Eames before she's had that coffee?"

Vanessa grinned. Eames' reputation as the resident squad snark was only topped by that of her need for caffeine. "Well," she said, slipping into one of the kitchen chairs,"I think it's nice that you want to keep Alex happy. Partners should look out for each other."

"And a cup of good brew is a small price to pay, in my book." He poured two cups and began to mix hers.

She watched him for a moment, feeling awkward, then said, "You don't have to do that...I'm not THAT much of a diva."

She saw him smile as he continued to stir the half and half into her coffee. "Here," he said, handing it to her. Taking his, he sat next to her at the table before asking, "So...what are your plans for today?"

It took all her self control to keep from sarcastically calling him Dad. "Oh, I thought I would finish unpacking my stuff. I have that shrink appointment uptown at two, so I'll be going there, I guess. Maybe go to the gym for awhile." She sipped her coffee. "You?"

He smirked. "Oh, paperwork, catching perps, interrogation...you know, the regular stuff."

"Ah." Suddenly she missed it. The cases, the rush, the work. The cerebral stimulation of it all. Here she sat, day after day, reading whatever she could get her hands on to keep from going out of her skull. At the hotel, work was some abstract concept that she didn't have to think about. Here, he would be going to work, without her, every day. And instead of serving some greater good, she was stuck inside four walls, talking to headshrinkers and going to the gym like a kept woman.

"Will you do me a favor?" she asked him suddenly, leaning over the edge of the table.

"Sure."

She paused for a moment, then looked at him. "Tell Deakins I should be back by the beginning of next week."

He exhaled heavily. "Has your doctor said--"

"Just tell him, Goren. And stop treating me like I'm some teenage bastard daughter you found wandering the street."

She heard him trying not to laugh in his coffee. She hoped it went up his nose. "Okay...on both counts." He stood and placed his coffee mug in the sink. "See you tonight."

"Okay. See you." She finished her cup as he left. She heard him double lock the door behind him, and told herself he would do that anyway, even if she weren't here.

******************************************************

"So tell me how things are going."

Vanessa smiled. "Pretty good. I've moved in with a friend for now, out of the hotel, and I should have a new place in a few weeks."

"Wow," Lydia Price managed to keep the sincerity in her voice, despite her skepticism. "That's quite a change from last week when you were here."

"Well, I've been thinking. A lot. And I guess I just realized that I won't move forward if I don't start trying to." She didn't mention anything about her conversations with Goren. She didn't want Lydia to know about that, that she was living with a coworker--nevermind a male coworker-- because she had gotten so spooked by a thunderstorm. Besides, how would she explain that? Instead, she looked up, mustering as much positive energy into her face as she could. "I really think one of the best things for me right now would be to have some purpose again."

Lydia knew where this was going, but she nodded. "I absolutely agree. How do you propose you find that?"

Vanessa sat straight. "I need to go back to work. I'm good at my job and I'm ready for the challenge. It's not going to do me good to stay at home and do nothing--I need to get back into the swing of things."

"With perps."

"With profiling."

"With profiling major crimes."

"I'm good at it."

Lydia watched Vanessa's posture growing stiffer, more defensive, with each sentence. She hesitated before responding. Most of her clients weren't this good at head games. "I know you're good at your job, Vanessa. You're one of the best in the city. Remember, that's why you're here--because NYPD wants to keep you, and they want to make sure you're okay for it."

"I know why I'm here," Vanessa said wryly, letting her facade crack a bit. "And it has to do with covering a lot of asses besides mine."

Lydia sighed. "That may be true. But have you thought this through? Have you thought about how you'll handle the next perp you have, or victim for that matter, who's involved in a sexual assault?"

Vanessa's chin went up automatically before she even realized it. She lowered it carefully, feeling like a little girl defending her toys. "I'll do what i always do--profile the crime, the perp, the victim, the evidence...give my detectives the information they need."

"And what's the effect going to be on you?"

She sat still, stiff in the chair, thinking about the question. She thought it to be a ridiculous contemplation. Like she hadn't thought about this a million times before. Before she ever went into this field. After each case, when she went home alone to an empty bed and an almost empty apartment, save for Bruce. Even after her own attack. How would she handle these types of cases? That was one of the things she had thought about the most as she lay in the hospital, on her back, for a week.

She cleared her throat. Fine. Lydia wanted honesty from her. If that was what she had to do to get her job back, she would do it. "You can't profile without it stealing a piece of your soul," she began, then paused. "That has nothing to do with what happened to me. It's just reality. You see the worst in people. What people are capable of doing to one another, and the reasons--the silly, horrific, and devastating reasons they behave the way they do. After living through an attack myself, I figure I have two choices. I can either spend my life on the run, trying to create the charade that I'm a normal, everyday woman who's never experienced that trauma, or I can go back to my job, do what I do best, and use that experience to be even better. To help me understand how perps think and how victims react. Either way I'll be living in the shadow of what happened to me. And if you sit here and tell me that the shadow is supposed to retract before I go back, then we'll both know there's no point in me coming back to therapy, because that will never happen."

"It can happen," Lydia objected quietly. "If you continue therapy and continue to work on goals for yourself."

"You've never been sexually assaulted, have you?" The question was bitter, like poison in her mouth, but came out before she could swallow it.

A moment of silence. "No. But you don't have to experience something to understand it. As a profiler, you should know that."

Vanessa's laugh was hollow. "Yeah. I used to believe that too."

Lydia sat back in her chair. Silence enveloped them. The clock on the wall ticked softly. She watched Vanessa begin to play with her fingernails again, a habit she often displayed in these sessions. After several moments, she said, "I'll send the paperwork to your captain. You can go back on Monday. But if you stop your appointments with me--"

"I know." Vanessa stood. "You'll send me to the NYPD time out chair."

***********************************************************

The hot water felt insanely good. After leaving Lydia's, she had gone to the gym. Up to nearly seven miles an hour now and her body didn't hurt nearly as badly as it had been. For the first time in ages, she felt alive again.

Lydia didn't get her. She knew that. She probably thought that Vanessa was playing games with her. Profilers had a reputation in the field for the ability to do that, and Vanessa knew Lydia was nobody's fool. But she had been as honest at the end of their session today as she knew how to be. And somehow, she was going to be starting back to work. Score one for the profiler.

Maybe Goren had been right. Maybe she had needed the kick in the ass of moving out of that hotel. They had spent the weekend rearranging some of his things to accommodate some of hers. When she had expressed concerns about what people at work might think or say, he had rebuffed her, firmly saying, "Let me worry about that, Rayden. Any idiot who thinks you're moving in here for a hot affair after what you've been through deserves to be fired."

The water skimmed off her body, seemingly washing her clean from the inside out. The sweat and grime from her workout disappeared and she felt fresh and nearly ethereal. The thought of her being ethereal made her giggle out loud. Jesus, when did she start giggling? Too much. Today had been absolutely too much.

Turning off the water and stepping out of the shower, she grabbed a towel and began to dry off. The August heat had permeated the apartment a bit, but Goren's air conditioner seemed to be tackling it okay. She quickly dressed and grabbed her dirty clothes to toss in the hamper. She swore she'd never felt so comfortable, so relaxed. Wandering into the front room, she collapsed on Goren's couch and grabbed the iced mocha she had picked up on the way back after her workout. She was going back to work on Monday. Bruce was here with her, and she wasn't even alone. For once.

Not alone. She froze mid-sip on her straw, suddenly realizing how much she had begun to grow comfortable with the idea of Goren being a regular presence in her life. In her personal life. Enough that she had agreed to live in his house. Enough that she was sleeping in his bedroom, albeit without him. Enough that she showered in his shower and drank from his coffee maker. When the hell did all that happen? When did this guy she worked with--and granted, thought highly of, despite his quirkiness--become her closest confidante?

She sat with those thoughts for several minutes before she realized that they didn't really bother her. Historically, she had always held people at bay. Most adults who experienced childhoods like hers had difficulty forming close relationships and trusting people. But she felt like Goren got that. He understood that this was hard for her. She knew, in her gut, that he had felt the same way at some point in his life. From what she had heard, his childhood hadn't been a picnic either.

He was incredibly loyal. Maybe that was why she trusted him. She had believed him when he said he would shoot Forrester's balls off. She actually thought that if he were given the opportunity, he'd hold off and let her watch. As sick as that sounded, she had fantasized about that possibility many times since he had said it the other day. Somehow she had forgotten to mention that part to Lydia.

She wondered if his dedication was to her as much as it was to his morals and to catching Forrester. She knew how he worked, how despite his reputation for being unpredictable, he stayed true to himself and what he believed in. She knew half of the reason she was sitting here right now was because of his morals. Because for whatever reason, he had hooked her wagon to his and was determined to pull her out of the figurative shit.

She wondered briefly, if the situation were reversed, would she have done the same for him? She liked to think so, but she probably would have left it to Eames. After all, they were closer. She and Goren worked together, but they weren't partners. Her job as the squad shrink and profiler left her partner-less. Yet he had stepped up, from the first night, and taken on the increasing responsibility of helping her to heal.

Suddenly she realized she was profiling him and she felt ashamed. Profiling friends was risky business. Granted, it came naturally but was usually considered bad form in her circles. She remembered the first day that she had met him--she had come back from vacation and Deakins had teamed Eames with Goren. He was insanely tall, good looking in a goofy way, and incredibly, incredibly cocky. Before she had even reached her floor, she had already heard about him--including his propensity to flirt. So she wasn't surprised when he had introduced himself to her later that afternoon, as she tried to pass a file to Eames.

"You must be Vanessa Rayden, the resident shrink. I've heard great things about you. I'm Robert Goren."

His grin was ridiculous, ear to ear cheesy. Clearly his information on her was limited, to think she'd ever fall for something like that. "Good to meet you, Detective," she had replied, shaking his outstretched hand.

"I hear you profile. So do I."

Now that was interesting information. She turned back around. "Really?" she had responded. "I'll be sure to ask for your help if I get stuck."

Somebody snorted. Eames, she thought.

His grin didn't waver. "How about now? You could profile me...show me your skills..."

She had crossed her arms. Like she didn't have anything better to do. "I think I'll have to pass."

"I could profile you."

Now she definitely heard Eames snort.

"Okay," she had said, arms still crossed. "Go for it. I'm game."

His grin turned into a flirtatious smile. "You're single, around thirty. Classy. Upper east side, maybe? I know you used to be in the music business, but you left it because you felt...unfulfilled. You take this job seriously--it's what you live for. The good you do. You go home exhausted but feel content with the difference you made."

"Well, I'm impressed," she replied sarcastically. "You just described every cop in this room."

"I'm not done," he said, and she caught her breath. "Despite everything you've achieved you still worry that it's not enough. You never had anyone tell you that you were good enough and so you're always trying to hit the next ring. You haven't learned yet how to be happy with yourself. That's your biggest problem. You'd be a lot more likely to find a relationship you're content with if you could learn to be happy with yourself."

The silence was deafening. Every person within hearing distance was watching the interchange. She had cleared her throat, thinking that he must be all balls and no brain at all, because nobody else would have ever had the nerve to say that to her face. "I'll keep that insight in mind, detective."

That cheesy grin returned. As if he had just done her some favor, solved some lifelong mystery. "No problem."

"You might do well to remember the same," she replied, launching into profiler mode. It was here she felt most at home. She knew, from the profile he had just given of her, an immense amount more about him than she had known five minutes ago. "You've been jumping for that next ring most of your life. Did you grow up in a divorced family? Single mom?" Seeing his expression change, she knew she had hit the target. "You joined the service young. Army is my guess. You're...built...like an army man. How many years? Was it there that you got into profiling? You're routinized. And for all your flirting, you're not interested in a long-term relationship. You're not big into trust. You find real relationships to be risky business so you're all charm on the surface. The closest relationships you have are with the vics, and since they're dead here...well-" She had shrugged her shoulders.

He continued to stare at her, mouth open as if to say something, but nothing came out. Suddenly she heard Deakins behind her, who had been watching the exchange, trying to keep his own face straight. "All right," he said to them, "is the pissing match over?"

Eames looked up and grinned at him. "They're done," she said. "I think Rayden won."

Deakins let his face break into a smile and had patted Goren on the shoulder. "It's okay," he had told Bobby. "I wouldn't mess with her though. I learned a long time ago to never mess with a shrink...much less one who profiles."

Later, he had dropped a file off in her office. "Look," he had said, "I'm sorry I crossed a line-"

She interrupted him. "Don't worry about it. But Goren-" she looked up at him and smiled with as much sickly sweetness as she could muster-"if you ever try a repeat performance I'll embarrass you so badly you'll never want to show your face in this squadroom again."

He never had. He'd never even tried to put the moves on her after that. Only a gentleman, professional and courteous, even chivalrous at times. And yet here she was, sitting on his couch, profiling the shit out of him. Stop, she told herself. If you want to know his motives then ask. And keep your promises.

She took a long drink of the mocha before setting it beside her on the coffee table. She picked up the newest copy of Smithsonian and began to read.

**********************************************

"Hey." He entered into the apartment, quickly shutting the door. "God it's hot out there. How are you?"

She looked up from the kitchen counter, where she was dicing up tomatoes. "Good. I thought I'd get dinner started. I hope you don't mind."

He grinned at her, holding up a bag. "I brought chinese," he said. "Eames always likes it."

"Oh yeah," she replied. "I forgot how chinese food is such a girl thing. Do you know that sodium and fat will kill you?"

He narrowed his eyes at her. "I dodge bullets for a living. I'm entitled to some sodium and fat once in awhile."

She laughed. Tossing the tomatoes into the salad she had started, she said, "Well, I guess it's chinese food...with american salad tonight."

He put the bag on the counter and began to pull the containers out. "Sounds good to me...I'm starving."

Ten minutes later they were sitting at the kitchen table, eating together in relative quiet. He suddenly broke the silence, waving his egg roll. "These are Eames' favorite. Habit, I guess. If I had known you weren't crazy for chinese, I would have gotten something else."

She looked at him like he was nuts. He was, considering her mouth was stuffed with orange chicken at the moment. "Uh, I think I'll manage, Goren," she mumbled with her mouth still full. Finally swallowing, she followed, "You know I was just teasing you. You guys have such crap diets I'm amazed you don't have a host of health problems."

He took another bite of his egg roll. "You do realize I don't eat like this every day, right?"

"Yeah," she proffered. "I've seen the donuts you haul into Alex on a regular basis...the only reason you get away with not being incredibly overweight is your extreme metabolism."

He snorted. "My what?"

"Well, you're a huge guy, so you must have the metabolism of a horse...that's probably how you can eat like that without gaining a ton of weight. You do realize that just because you're normal weight doesn't mean that you're healthy, right?"

He didn't like this conversation. "You're ruining my appetite, Rayden."

She didn't look at him, but smiled as she moved on to her lo mein. "I heard a long time ago that you're a great cook."

"Oh yeah?" Now he was interested. "Who'd you hear that from?"

"Angie in accounting." She was working very hard to focus on her food rather than her desire to completely go into hysterical peals of laughter.

"Oh, that's funny, Rayden. Very funny."

"Hey," she replied, "just because they had to repaint the ladies' bathroom on two to cover up what she wrote about you--"

"That's a rumor! That never happened!"

"What was it she said? That dessert in your house is more successful on the table, served cold?"

He was blushing but couldn't stop his objection. "That...that was a mistake...it just ended, well, badly..."

She laughed. "You're too easy to bait." Taking another bite of the lo mein, she said, "Everybody knows that Angie's worked her way around the building. You're not the only one she thinks serves cold duck."

"Rayden!"

"Oh, relax, Goren. I'm only kidding." She turned toward the sink to toss the rest of her food down the garbage disposal. "Anyway, Janeane in filing thinks you're something else. So do Allison and Rita. Rita has you confused with Sylvester Stallone--she keeps calling you 'my own italian stallion'."

Her statement was met with silence and she wondered, for a moment, if she'd really overstepped. Then, she heard him, tone serious. "Why are you saying all of this?"

She turned back to him, looked him in the eye and smiled. "I'm just teasing you is all. Surely you've heard it all before."

She knew he had, but his ears were red and he didn't look amused anymore. "I'm sorry," she said, suddenly feeling ashamed and embarrassed. "I guess I pushed too far."

He wasn't eating any more, but cleared his throat, then looked up at her briefly before his eyes settled back on his plate. "I'm just...um...just not good at relationships. You know...after the first few dates...it kind of goes awry for me."

She sat back down at the table, "Well, don't feel too bad," she told him softly. "I'm so good at it I picked a rapist."

They both sat in silence for several minutes before he cleared his throat again. "You remember the first day we met...you profiled me...you were right, about everything..."

"I know. So were you."

"I know."

Silence enveloped them again. After another minute or two, he reached for her hand on the table, covering it with his own. His thumb moved back and forth over her own, and for one brief moment she found herself wondering how she would have made it through the last two months without him. For all his faults in his relationships with women, he had never let her down. Not once. She decided to tell him so.

"You're a good friend, Bobby. You've never let me down. Maybe you just haven't met the right woman yet."

He looked up at her, this time his face relaxing a bit and a slight smile crossing his lips. He squeezed her hand for a moment, then continued to hold it without letting go. "I'm fairly good with the friend thing," he said after a moment. "And trust me, I think you're pretty incredible yourself."

She watched their hands together as they sat in silence, thinking about the connection she felt with this man. Wondering what he had been through in his life that allowed him to understand her so well. Wondering why he was different, why she felt safe in this place, as though his apartment walls were impenetrable and she could never be harmed here. She didn't recall ever feeling so safe--anywhere--in her life. Even when she had been surrounded by bodyguards and managers and lawyers, she had never felt protected. Onstage or off. At some moments, like now, she could envision letting it all hang out. Telling him everything. Talking through nights and days of her entire lifetime to him, and feeling like he would never let go.

Suddenly, her mouth spoke before she caught the words. "How do you know?" she asked.

He continued to stare at their hands. "Know what?"

Her eyes wandered slowly from their hands, up his arm, to his face. "Know me."

After a moment, he sighed, a long outstretch of breath through his pursed lips. "I...um...you know...my mother is a schizophrenic."

"Yes. Upstate, in a facility."

"Yeah." He shook his head. "I had no other choices...she was too paranoid and delusional and she needed to be monitored all the time...despite everything as a child, I still feel like I let her down. Intense sense of responsibility. The curse of the oldest child."

She nodded.

"Except I'm the youngest."

Now she let her hand turn upward in his, the index finger stroking along the side of his hand.

"My dad...he was a gambler and a sex addict...no respect for my mom...they broke up when I was eleven. My brother chose to follow in my dad's footsteps."

She wasn't looking at his face anymore, but staring again at their hands. The one person in the whole damn world who hadn't been afraid to touch her since it happened.

"So that left me and my mom. My dad--he was still involved after he left home--as long as he wasn't getting laid or betting on the track. At least with my brother. Me, I guess he just wasn't that interested." He laughed, a sad, soft sound in his throat that pierced her chest and fell into her gut. "The army was a good option for me. Gave me what my parents couldn't." He paused. "I don't need you to tell me your story is similar. I've seen it in your eyes since the day I met you."

She didn't speak but threaded her fingers through his. For a moment it struck her how no one--even her doctors--had touched her since the attack. It suddenly occurred to her how she had come to think of herself, in some ways, as a pariah. As though what had happened to her could somehow rub off and stain someone else. But despite their gender differences, he wasn't afraid of touching her. He wasn't afraid that she would run screaming from his touch or read all sorts of insane things into this moment. She felt closer to him now than she ever had.

And so she spoke.

"My mom struggled with anxiety and depression. My dad was gone a lot, traveling. Very hands-off. Mom spent a lot of time in bed. She just wasn't capable, I guess. I have a sister. She doesn't speak to me very often. She thinks I sang Satan's music."

That last statement caused him to tilt his head and smile. "Really?"

Now she broke into a grin. "Yeah. Like, if you play the album backwards I'm saying, 'Welcome to hell, my friend.'"

Suddenly he laughed. Hard. She joined him. They sat, laughing harder and harder until he pulled his hand back to cover his mouth, trying not to roar into his food.

"No offense," he finally gasped, "but your sister's a bit of a nut."

"Yeah...it runs in the family."

He took a breath, turning serious, asking the question but already knowing in his gut the answer before he posed it. "What about your mom?"

"Suicided when I was fifteen." She drummed her fingers on the table, forcing her face to stay straight and show little sign of emotion.

But his hand reached out to hers again, squeezing it, stroking it, trying to will her pain out of her own body and into his through their connected fingers. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "No child should have to go through that."

She sighed. "Life's an unfair bitch, isn't it?"

His eyes found hers again, briefly. "Yeah."

They would sit like that in silence for several more minutes before she finally would get up and dump his plate.

************************************************

As promised, Alex was there, waiting at a small table near the back. Nursing her beer, she was clearly people-watching, and surprisingly being amused by it. Vanessa approached quickly, tossing her bag onto the back of the empty seat. "Hey," she said, catching her breath. She'd been pushing herself to get here on time.

"Hey yourself. How's it going?"

Vanessa grinned. "Just great. How about yourself?" The waitress came over and Vanessa motioned for a beer.

"Pretty good." Alex swirled her bottle before putting it on the table. "I hear you're out of the Wyndham."

Feeling a little self-conscious, Vanessa glanced at Alex's face. She looked relaxed, friendly. They'd been friends for years, but over the last few months Alex had seemed to slowly vanish from her life. "Yeah...I got strong-armed into that move. But so far it's been good."

Alex laughed. "I can only imagine Goren as a housemate."

Vanessa smiled. "He's not that bad. At least not yet. He's been very...thoughtful." She paused, feeling extremely awkward and embarrassed. "I should be out of there in another week or so, though. I"m looking for another place."

The waitress brought Vanessa's beer and Eames' next. After a sip, Eames said, "I hear you're coming back to work too."

"Yeah, on Monday."

"Goren was surprised. He said he didn't know."

"He didn't. I didn't tell him yet." Vanessa took a long swallow of her beer. How quickly could she toss this one back, she found herself wondering. Two...four...even six sounded really good right now. In fact, tequila sounded even better. When she looked up again, Alex was watching her.

"Why not?"

"Huh?"

"Ness--" Eames said exasperatedly, knowing Vanessa was trying to avoid her question. "Why didn't you tell Bobby you were going back to work? Why hide it? It makes it look like you did something underhanded to make this happen."

Vanessa felt her gut clench, and grabbed her beer again. Liquid courage, isn't that what they called it? "Honestly, it just didn't come up. I talked with my therapist on Monday and she cleared me. I'm good to go. You guys are reading way too much into this. Jesus."

She heard Alex sigh, knew she'd hit the wall. Eames' tolerance wall. Maybe this was why Alex had been scarce lately--Vanessa knew she wasn't always easy to take, and it was quite possible that she was frustrating Alex more than usual. She suddenly felt frustrated herself, misunderstood, tired. "Maybe I should go, and we can catch up another time," she said, finishing off her beer.

"No, no," Alex said quickly. "Stay. Let's catch up--we'll talk about something better than work OR Goren. And we'll get real drinks, okay?"

'Eames, stop humoring me." Vanessa stayed seated but looked sideways at Alex. "Do you mean it--you're not going to put me through the ringer?"

Alex held up her hand. "Swear. Two tequila shots? Lemon and salt? And then I'll tell you about my last date...by the time we're done drinking it should be hysterical."

And it was. They drank and laughed until their sides hurt about the accountant who had begged Alex to give him a chance. Who had tried to serenade her in a local restaurant with his own rendition of Joe Cocker's "You Are So Beautiful". Who called her the next day to tell her he just didn't think it would work out, because he had met the love of his life that morning at a gas station. And proceeded to keep her on the phone for another twenty minutes describing the encounter.

"I can't believe this is your life," Vanessa gasped, wiping the tears from her eyes, trying to get her breathing back under control.

"I know, it's crazy, isn't it?" Alex turned down another shot, but Vanessa motioned for one more. "It's like I have a bumper sticker attached to my head that says 'Losers Only'!"

Vanessa giggled, feeling the tequila leaving her imbalanced and heady. "One day you'll find the right one...you will, Alex...you're a great person with a lot to offer."

Alex snorted. "Sure. A full time job with a pension, benefits, and a gun. Hey, I also have a bullet proof vest."

"That could be the dowry," Vanessa laughed, finishing off the shot. "Hey, Goren would appreciate that."

Alex snorted again. "Uh, we're not like that. And you know it. Besides-" she giggled-"he's got his eyes elsewhere."

"Oh yeah?" She felt light and airy, funny and furiously aware. "Where's that?"

Eames looked her straight in the eye. "Are you shitting me?"

Vanessa laughed. "You're drunk. You never curse unless you're drunk."

Eames grinned back. "And you're oblivious too, aren't you?"

"Apparently, because I have no fucking idea what you're saying."

"You, genius."

"Me what?"

"He's got it for you. And in a bad way too." Alex was still grinning as she sipped the cup of water the waitress had supplied. "Don't worry. I don't even think he knows himself. You know, for all that genius in there..." she tapped her head with one finger. "Thick."

"What the hell are you talking about?" Her mind was reeling from Alex's statement. She couldn't process. Alex had to be wrong--Goren had never been anything but respectful to her, kind and gentle, like a friend. Or an incredibly loving partner. She felt her breathing quicken and she wasn't sure if it was due to anxiety or anticipation.

Eames rolled her eyes. "Okay, I'm only going to say this once. Pretend you're not as thick as Goren. Goren is extremely fond of you. He talks about you every day. You have apparently replaced me as the official woman in his life. That's a big deal for him. It doesn't take a genius to see how he lights up around you, how intense he is when he talks about you, how worried and anxious he was when he heard you were coming back to work. He's hot for you, Vanessa. He's fallen hard." She paused, then shook her head. After a minute, she continued. "This was stupid. I shouldn't have said anything. I'm probably wrong anyway, and this is the worst time in the world for you to be thinking about a relationship." Alex took a long drink of her water. "This was probably the last thing you wanted to hear."


Vanessa searched her head for words to respond. The alcohol had kicked in, and she had trouble focusing. "It's okay," she heard herself saying. Was it? Really? On Monday she had sat with him, holding hands and sharing deep family secrets. While she was thinking about friendship, he was thinking about fucking. Really? Well, she thought, he was male...and that's what they do. She could hear her mother's voice in her head, during one of her tearful diatribes. "You watch yourself, Vanessa Elizabeth," she had said, shaking a twelve-year old Vanessa by the shoulders. "That's what men want--it's sex. Don't ever let yourself be fooled into anything else. There's no such thing as love with a man. They aren't capable of it. You're either fucking or you're not."

She had been scared then. Scared of her mother's intensity, the anger in her words. Scared that her mother was right. Was her dad like that? Was that all he wanted from them? He was never home--maybe that was why. Was that all Chad, who had asked her to walk with him to the store that day, was thinking about? She had decided not to find out, and stayed home that day, reading, instead of going to the mini-mart. And Forrester--God knows what had been on his mind. He thought he was going to have some sort of sex party with her that night.

Goren had the reputation. God, she had just joked with him about it the other night. Maybe Eames was right. Even if she was, though, he'd never been anything but kind. Never even made the slightest flirtatious move toward her after the first day they met. He'd been such a source of comfort for her lately. She was having trouble marrying the two concepts in her head at the moment. Too much tequila. She stood up, grabbed her bag.

"Ness--don't run off and do something stupid. And for God's sake, don't tell him I said anything!"

Vanessa shook her head, then impulsively hugged Alex. "Thanks again. Stop avoiding me." Before Alex could respond, Vanessa was out the door.

It was a short walk back to the apartment, but she found herself moving quickly. Her logical mind was whispering to slow down, to think, but she was tired of it. Tired of thinking so much with her logical mind. She wanted, needed to know if he had motives she hadn't considered. If she needed to move. If she needed to go on birth control. God, she hadn't had any in the last two years. Suddenly she laughed out loud, as she realized that maybe, just maybe, she wouldn't mind if...

If what? The realization of her own contemplation literally stopped her cold. She ceased to move, standing still in front of the building, trying to imagine making love to a man right now. Even Goren. Even the person who made her feel safer than anyone in the world. Despite the tequila running through her veins, she felt more confused and overwhelmed than she had felt in the restaurant. And afraid. She felt afraid.

Somewhere in her gut, she knew Alex was right. She had seen it, felt it, when he touched her hand on Monday. Felt his restraint and respect. And she, hammered into oblivion by the trauma she was supposedly recovering from, easily dismissed it. As friendship. As comraderie. Idiot, she told herself.

Slowly she took the stairs up to the apartment and let herself in. His jazz music was playing softly, but she didn't see him at first. He was sitting at the kitchen table, reviewing a case file. She stepped out of her shoes and entered the kitchen.

"Hey," he said, looking up and smiling. "You and Eames have a good time?"

"Yeah." She paused. "I'm drunk."

He looked at her carefully, not sure what to do with that information.

"I need to ask you a question. And I need you to tell me the truth. You always tell me the truth. And I need to know."

"I get it," he responded, looking a little puzzled.

She took a deep breath. "Are you..." She stopped. She had been going to ask him if he was hot for her, like Eames had said, but then decided even in her drunken state that was a bad choice of words. Seeing him sit back, still looking at her patiently, she expelled the sentence quickly. "Do you have feelings for me?"

He looked surprised, but not embarrassed or ashamed. Instead, he leaned forward and rested his chin in his hand, elbow on the table. "Of course I do."

Vanessa felt her heart pounding out of her chest and realized her breath was shallow. She was dizzy and reached for the chair. "You do?" she asked again.

"Yeah. I didn't know that was a secret."

She sunk into the chair next to him. "I had no idea."

"Sure you do." He looked like this was the most logical thing in the world. "You know I care about you. You wouldn't be here if I didn't."

She looked at him, confused. "No" she tried to clarify. "I mean...romantic notions..."

His brows furrowed for a moment. "Is there a difference? I mean, I care very much about you. I feel like we've gotten pretty close, especially over the last couple of months. I don't know what will grow from that. Would I like something to happen eventually? Sure. But I'm content if something does and just as content if it doesn't. Either way I have more now than I had before." He saw her face, anxiously watching him, and suddenly felt an immense sense of guilt. Clearly, she interpreted things differently than he did. The thought that she would think he had engineered the last few months was disconcerting, to say the least. "You're thinking I had some...feelings...for you before...?""

"I don't know."

He thought for a moment. "Do you remember last week, when you told me you trusted me because I don't lie to you?"

That night--the night of the storm--was still clearly imprinted in her mind, despite the alcohol. "Yes."

He sat up now and looked at her. "If I knew for sure that you and I would never, ever have a chance in hell as any more than coworkers, like we were two months ago, I would have done exactly the same things I have done up until now."

She let out a breath.

"I made those choices based on what I thought was the right thing to do. Because I care about you. Not because of what I thought you might do at some point in the future." He turned his chair so he was looking at her face to face. "And yes, I'm a little bothered...disturbed, really...that you would think my motives are to bait you. I've told you things that I don't normally share with other people. Even Eames...or past girlfriends...anyone. Because I knew you'd understand. Because of who you are. If you're asking me if I plan to put the moves on you sometime soon, the answer is no. I have no intention of doing anything before either of us feels right about it. And if we never feel right about it, then we don't. But I feel incredibly blessed to know you, Rayden. To know someone who finally understands me."

His eyes were penetrating hers and she saw the tears on the tips of his lashes. Part of her felt surprised, but part of her felt like she already knew, already knew all the answers he had just given, and how deeply he felt about it.

She stared at his face, fixated on the tear welling in the corner of his eye. "It's my mom," she said finally, sinking deeper into the chair. Shame. "I think I need another beer."

He didn't move and didn't acknowledge what she said, but kept looking at her intently.

"She said men aren't capable of love."

Silence.

"I believed her."

His hand snaked under the table, touching hers. Light. She let him.

"I'm so fucked up," she said softly, shaking her head. Either way he read that statement, he thought it was probably true. Still, his fingers ran across hers and interlaced. Like the other night. Like Monday.

She lifted their hands above the table, and looked at his fingers twisted with hers. His were long, tapered, lean; they reminded her of a pianist's hands. She closed her eyes and brought his hand to her face, running it against her cheek. She held it there for a moment silently.

He watched her exploring his hand with a mixture of warmth and fascination. She was examining his fingers, then running his hand across her face. He could smell the tequila on her breath, and as she brought his hand closer to her mouth, he wondered briefly if she planned to kiss him. He knew she was a mix of contradictions on a good day, and tonight she had been drinking. He briefly wondered if he had done the right thing by telling her the truth but dismissed the thought almost as quickly as it had arrived. She wanted the truth from him and he had given it to her, even if it ended up costing him tomorrow.

She pulled his hand away from her face and placed it gently in both of hers. "Bobby." It was soft and sweet. "I'm sorry I hurt your feelings. I don't know what I'm thinking tonight. I guess I'm just confused."

He rested his chin back in his left hand, as before, leaving his right hand sandwiched between hers. Her hands were small and warm, softly rubbing his palm. "It's okay," he teased. "We can be fucked up and confused together. I'm good at that too. LIke the friendship thing," he reminded her.

Suddenly she laughed. "You're also hilarious. You're good at that also."

He squeezed her hand. "I really do care about you. No matter what, Rayden."

"I know. Me too." She sighed. "Nobody else gets this out of me. But somehow, you...I feel safe here," she finished.

Then, softly: "Me too. With you."
*************************************************

She pulled on her favorite dark wash jeans and black tank. Finally. After two freaking months, she was going back today. Vanessa imagined the piles of case files on her desk and grinned to herself. Slipping her heels on and grabbing her button down white blouse, she opened the bedroom door.

"Sorry I took so long," she said to Goren as she approached the coffee maker.

He rubbed the back of his neck, making his way to the bathroom. "Don't worry about it. We don't have to leave for another hour. I"m not that high maintenance."

She grinned at him and playfully punched him in the shoulder. She felt giddy this morning, like a brand new start to her world was beginning and she couldn't wait to take off. "Then be quick about it," she said.

He grinned back at her. "Hurry to get somewhere?" He laughed as she motioned to hit him again, and moved to the bedroom, shutting the door behind him.

Forty minutes later, they were in the subway and boarding the train. Already she felt the familiar, painful ache of the shoes on her feet and she smiled. It had been a long time since she had worn these shoes.

"What's so funny?"

He was watching her over the top of his paper and she realized she was probably sporting a gigantic grin. "Nothing," she replied. "You wouldn't understand."

"Oh yeah," he replied sarcastically, "I forgot about how slow I am."

She laughed. "You don't do sarcasm well in real-life, Bobby. You need to save it for interrogation."

He shook his head and went back to reading, but she saw the slight smile on his face. Despite his trepidation about today, she was willing to bet he was glad she was coming back too.

They arrived at their stop, exited, and made their way onto the sidewalk. Vanessa could feel her heart beating faster in her chest. God, she was so excited.

"You wanna stop for coffee? We have time." She had already passed him, passed the coffee shop. He was calling back to her.

She turned around and faced him fully, continuing to walk backward. "No, I'm good! One PP makes the best, anyway."

He stepped forward for a moment, clearly torn between whether to stop for a cup for Eames or to continue on with her.

"Go," she called through the crowd. "I'll see you in a few!"

He stood there, watching her nearly run down the street to One Police Plaza before ducking inside the shop. She had told him to stop treating her like some--how was it she had put it?--bastard teenage daughter. God, it was hard. He wasn't naive enough to believe that Forrester wasn't still out there looking for her. She had been safer before going back to work, living with him, staying off the radar. Going back to work meant a predictable routine, a schedule of where she would be. He knew from experience that men like Keith Forrester hardly ever gave up on stalking their victims. Forrester would return again. He knew it, could feel it in his bones, and it scared him. The most logical place in the world to find a profiler like Vanessa? In her office, on the job.

He ordered the coffee for himself and Eames, deciding against getting a cup for Rayden. If she had wanted one, she would have indicated, he reasoned. Besides, she seemed in an awfully big hurry to taste the coffee upstairs.

Getting off the elevator, he made his way to his desk, scanning the room for her. She wasn't in her office. He handed a cup to Eames, who greeted him with her typically chill, "Morning."

"You seen Rayden?" he asked, already feeling a little apprehensive.

Eames was still drawing a long sip from her cup, but motioned toward Deakins' office with her hand. "She's in there," she finally said. "Don't worry--Deakins has downstairs on alert. He won't get in the building. And since Deakins isn't going to let her ride along, she should be fine."

Goren sank into his chair. "Really?" he said, surprised at Deakins' decision. He'd never known his boss to go chicken shit on anything.

"Apparently, she's on a conditional return to work. No gun, no ride alongs, no sex assault cases."

"So what the hell's she supposed to do all day?"

Eames shrugged. "Profile us, probably," she said. After a moment, she added, "No idea, but she's going to be pissed when they're done. Hell, I'm pissed for her. Lydia Price might as well have stripped her of her shield and sent her in here as an official paper pusher."

Goren didn't say anything but bent over his notepad, tapping his pen on the inside of it, thinking. At least she would be safe. He knew as well as Eames and Deakins did that they were no closer to catching Forrester than before. Her coming to work might actually be a way to bring him out, lure him back. The thought sickened him. He had seen firsthand what she had been through, and as a human being, it was startlingly grotesque to use her as bait. But as a detective, this was their best shot. He found himself wondering if Deakins and Price had set this up. And in the end, how long would it be before she got her gun and her casefiles back? At what point would they allow her to return to her job, the one she was so gifted at? Or would she always wear the taint of the "profiler who barely got away"?

"Did you hear about that one on eleven...what's her name...that profiler who was attacked? By some guy she knew. Heard she barely got away."

He had heard it now more times than he had fingers. People talked. Cops were the same as everyone else. He wondered how long it would be before people stopped remembering her work and started to only remember her victimization.

He didn't realized he had sighed. Eames looked up. "Stop worrying, Goren," she told him. "There's nothing you can do about this. And if I know her half as well as I think I do, she wouldn't want you to intervene anyway."

"I'm not intervening," he objected softly. "Just...just thinking...about how all this might play out."

Deakins' office door opened and Rayden exited, making a beeline to her own office and closing the door.

Do not pass go, Goren thought. Do not collect $200.

Deakins approached them. "I'm assuming Alex filled you in...no ride alongs?"

"Yeah," he said, not looking up. Then, quietly, "Are we trying to draw him out?"

Now it was Deakins' turn to sigh. "Lydia Price doesn't feel she is fully capable to return to her previous level of responsibility yet."

"I'm sure Rayden would have appreciated that news last Monday." Eames' annoyance and sarcasm was evident.

Deakins crossed his arms. "There's nothing I can do about it, Alex. Rayden understands and she has plenty to work on otherwise. But she stays here. She's not to work any cases involving sex assaults and she's not to ride along on anything. If you two are the friends to her that you say you are, you'll make sure those rules get followed. Let the boys downstairs keep an eye out for Forrester. If he shows up, we'll grab him."

Eames looked at Goren, a serious, heavy look. He met her eyes but didn't say anything. She breathed heavily, out her nose, the way she did when she was either really upset or really pissed. She passed him a file, then with her usual snark, said, "Evidence in the Bronson case. Make sure you don't take it home and show it to Rayden."

*********************************************

She had been watching the clock for the past twenty minutes. The hand moved slowly, steadily, with the near silent tick-tick-tick as the seconds melted away. Click. Another minute. Then tick-tick-tick--

"Hey," Goren's voice was quiet as he stood in her doorway. "What are you doing?"

"Wasting time," she said, not looking at him but still watching the clock with intensity. After a moment, she spun her chair around to face him. Still leaning back, she said, "I think this may be what John Lennon was talking about when he said he was sitting watching the wheels go round and round."

Goren smiled slightly. "You ready to go?"

"Are you kidding? When I'm having so much fun?" Vanessa reached for her bag and closed the file on her desk. Looking up to see his curious expression, she shrugged. "DUI. I told them to look for a drunk guy."

Now he grinned. At least she still had that witty sense of humor.

He had been dreading this all day, this reunification, but anticipating it as well. Would she tell him what Deakins said? Would she question him about his part, what he knew? Would she refuse conversation at all, shut him out, ignore his presence? That's what he would have done. Gone into the bedroom, shut the door and locked it until morning. Maybe she wouldn't though, because they did have to share that bathroom...

She followed him to the elevator quietly, then out to the street. Instead of heading toward the subway, he motioned to the curb. "Deakins has arranged transportation," he explained as a black SUV pulled up. Goren nodded to the driver as he opened the back door for her. Confused, she climbed in. She knew Deakins liked her, but this was over the top...

Goren shut the door and she turned to face him. "Are you trying to bring him out?' she asked.

Her tone wasn't accusatory; it was downright confrontational. He could feel her eyes riveted to him, knew she was angry. Like the one kid left out of the birthday surprise. The one not invited to the party.

They were on their way out of Manhattan, but Goren was focused on watching through the windows. She saw his hand on his gun, and thought that he was trigger happy.

"Bobby," she finally said, calmly, low. "He won't come."

Still watching the back window, he replied, "We can't know that."

"I'm a profiler. I know. He won't come. Not today." He glanced at her and she moved her head, trying to catch his eyes fully. Finally, she found them and brought him around to look at her. "He'll be back but not now. It's too soon, too predictable. Right now he would know and expect everyone's guard to be up. He'll wait. Six months, a year, five years, and then he'll show up."

He looked at her, dumbfounded. "You've thought about this." It was a statement.

She nodded. "Like I've had much else to think about all day. Do you guys really think I've got my head buried that far up my ass?"

He didn't respond, but she noticed his hand move away from his gun. She knew she had convinced him. After a minute, he said, "Deakins just wants--we all just want you to be safe until he's arrested. To the best of my knowledge, this isn't for bait...it was supposed to be for real. You returning to work. I'm sorry she did this to you-" the words tumbled out quickly, but then he stopped, not knowing where else to go with it.

She shook her head and looked out the window, tears forming in her eyes. This day had sucked. From the initial meeting with Deakins to her special "appointment" with Lydia Price that afternoon, to now. She closed her eyes, wishing that it all just went away. That she had told Forrester she had other plans that night. That she had shot him in the gut. That she had pulled a Marcia Brady and decided to wash her hair instead of go out on a date. Anything would have been better than today. Punishment for being the victim of an assault. Classic.

The car pulled in front of Goren's building and they got out. Took the elevator up to his apartment. He told her he'd take Bruce out for his walk, since she did it that morning. She nodded. She knew time had everything to do with it. It was dark now. Easier for the bad guys to come out in the darkness.

She sat on his couch, face in her hands, thinking about her session with Lydia. How she had calmly told Lydia to go fuck herself, that she wanted a new therapist and she was fired. That Vanessa would call all the way up the ranks if she had to, to get someone not so ridiculously stupid. Her calm had quickly turned into fury, watching Lydia sit there, holding her future in her hands and still doing nothing to help her. She had then let loose with a barrage of insults and curse words. To her credit, Lydia hadn't responded to the threats nor belittled her for making them. Instead, she had finally asked, "Would you have been this verbally abusive to someone before you were assaulted?"

She was instantly transported, ten years old, listening to her parents screaming curse words at one another, hearing the crashing of dinner plates as her dad called her mom a whore and her mom called her dad a prick. The seamless flow of the words that bounced off the walls of the tiny house and smacked her, hard, each time they were thrown. The door being slammed shut. Her mother, crying and hysterical and furiously angry, turning on her bedroom light to tell Vanessa and her sister what a low life bastard their father was. But she would never leave them. She. She who left them, who said she never would.

She hadn't answered Lydia. Instead, she had shut down, refused to speak farther than, "I'm firing you and I want another therapist." She didn't care if it didn't bode well for her. Lydia Price was a fucking bitch.

Goren opened the door back up and let Bruce off the leash. Bruce wagged his tail and quickly found his way to her, licking her face gently then settling at her feet. Absently she began to stroke his head, but otherwise didn't move. What a mess her life had become. She thought about her mother suddenly, buried in medications trying desperately to get better only to lose the battle. Her in the not-so-distant future, she thought.

She felt the couch sink next to her, knew he was there but refused to acknowledge it. Knew his arm was slinking behind her back and she wondered, briefly, what he would do if she flung herself on him and kissed him, hard. If she buried it all into removing the pain and the ache from her mind by fucking him senseless. Every day he gave to her. She didn't know if he would give her that too, if she asked. If she asked to be lost in him, would he let her?

His hand was stroking her back but she sat still, stroking Bruce's head and holding her own in her hand, trying to steady the breath that was betraying her, coming deeper and faster. She remembered on one ride-along, how he had so skillfully gotten a teenage rape victim to share her story and identify her attacker. How he had held the little girl and told her she was strong. That kid was strong, she thought. That kid wasn't me.

Her hands moved to her gut, arms crossing in front of her. The hand moving up and down her back, slow and comforting. Damn him. Damn him to hell, she thought, as the tears rose up and caught her breath, trying to strangle her. She heard him, the sound he made in his throat, and the hand was gone then. It reappeared on her far side, pulling her closer into him.

The dam broke and the flood came, hot and fast and desperate. She buried herself in his shirt, burying the sound of the scream and the wretching and the dying of her soul. His arms encased her completely and she clung desperately to him, both hands clutching cloth, as though she would be pulled away from his body at any moment. She began to gasp for air but he didn't let her up, continued to hold her close, pulling into his chest. "Get it out," he whispered. "It's okay to get it all out."

And she did, letting the day sweep over her raw nerves. She slipped down his shirt, torso resting in his lap, clinging to his arm as the grief and pain washed over her. She cried for her lost gun and her cases and her ride-alongs. She cried about Lydia and Deakins. About Forrester and her loneliness and her attack and being a frightened child. Cried about being reduced to this--this crying mess--in front of someone that she could have otherwise been playing with.

At last her tears began to slow, breath evening out again. She was half-sitting, half laying in his lap. so she curled her legs up under her on the couch. He continued to hold her body, and for the first time she felt tremors in his own.

"I hate this," she whispered dully.

After a minute, he stroked her hair. "Today sucked, didn't it?"

"Yeah." She could feel him trying to steady his own breath and she realized that he had been crying too. She didn't want to embarrass him, so she said nothing.

Her brain and her body felt empty. Drained. Exhausted from breaking down and coming back together. "I want to sleep," she finally said softly.

He started to move his arms for her to sit, but she pulled them back. "Here. I want to sleep right here." She could feel his hesitation and thought how ridiculous her earlier thoughts were. She knew he cared about her and was too moral of a guy to let her exhaust herself through self-depracating sex.

But he let her maneuver his arms the way she wanted, one pillowlike behind her head and the other across her chest. Her own arms entwined around his, and she felt it return. That feeling...the one she always had with him. Safety.

After several minutes, he heard her breathing soften and steady, and knew she was asleep. He never slept well, truth be told, but he was tired too. Watching her dissolve in front of him had been emotionally exhausting. He had been reminded of his own childhood, of his desperate efforts to quell his mother's paranoid and painful episodes. He didn't want to be her security blanket, but at times he felt so lost in her, felt a desperation to rid her of the pain. She was the only one who had ever understood half of what he had gone through, and that knowledge bound him inextricably to her. Eames tried and was a great friend and partner. But this? This was out of even her league.

He had been afraid she would leave after their conversation the other night. But she hadn't. If anything, it had seemed to bring them closer, to bond them more tightly than before. When he came back from walking Bruce earlier, he had known. The look on her face. He knew it was coming. The tears had come before, but not like this...this complete dissolution. For a second he wondered what he was doing, if he was equipped to hang in there and do this, and then he remembered his own tears. He had thought at first they were for her. And then he had realized they weren't, they were for him and his losses and he felt like a selfish bastard. He didn't know, but was pretty sure she had sensed it. Either way she had chosen this, to curl up in his lap and sleep, and he couldn't deny he was glad. His motives maybe weren't as altruistic as he had led her to believe, he was realizing now. Maybe he was lonely too. And the thought of her, the one who understood him, being here, was comforting.

He wasn't sure what that made him, he thought sleepily, and closed his eyes. Right now he was too tired to care.

**********************************************

"Hey sleepyhead...you need to get up."

She opened her eyes. Where the hell was she? Oh, the couch. That's right. She'd broken down on him again. Nice and embarrassing. This was becoming an unpleasant habit.

He was standing over her, fully dressed with two cups of coffee. "I waited until the last minute, but you have to get up if we're going to make it in time."

Vanessa rolled over on the couch, away from him, burying her head in the pillows. "I'm not going anywhere," she said. "I'm staying here today. I'll figure out tomorrow then."

He put the coffee down and crossed his arms. "What the hell are you talking about?"

She lifted her head and looked at him. "Do you need me to speak slowly? Look, I said I'm not going in. Not today. Probably not ever. I don't have a real job anymore. I have what equates to a pity fuck from the NYPD. And I fired that bitch Lydia yesterday. I have no reason to go in and I'm not going to."

He kept looking at her, with his arms crossed. After a minute, he said, "Don't you think Deakins deserves to hear this? You know, he stuck his neck out for you to come back."

"Yeah, to bait Forrester. That's a friend for you." She fluffed the pillow and put it behind her head. "I'm going to do my best to assume you weren't in on that one."

"Gee, thanks," he replied. "And it wasn't to bait Forrester. It was because somebody was adament about returning to work before their time. The fact that your presence on a regular schedule, in your workplace, could be bait for a stalker is something Deakins chose not to ignore. He's busted his ass for you. If you don't want to do your job, fine. You told me not to treat you like my bastard teenage daughter. So stop acting like a petulant little child and at least go in and talk to the boss." Throwing his hands up in frustration, he said, "I don't care what you do after that. Get yourself a manicure. Go meet one of your rich friends for a mocha. Go to the gym or hire a new therapist. Get a massage. But at least give everyone credit for trying to help you out of this."

She stared at him, mouth open.

"You're going to catch flies that way," he said as he settled in a chair with his coffee.

She sat up sharply and shoved the pillow back down on the couch. "If I were a violent type of person, Goren, I would punch your face," she said, feeling the power in the words and enjoying it. "I really would. I'd kick you in the balls. Bastard." She stood and stormed off to the bathroom.

He heard the water turn on and the mumble of her talking to herself in the shower. The water turned off fifteen minutes later and he could still hear her, more clearly now, mumbling. "Bastard teenage daughter...fucker...owe nobody anything...punish me for being a victim...fucking hypocrites, all of them..."

He listened to her moving around in the bedroom. She hadn't shut the door and he wondered if she did it out of anger, to punish him, to show him what he would now never have. He wouldn't put it past her. She had quieted down but he could still hear her slamming doors and containers around.

Finally she emerged, wet hair slung back in a ponytail but otherwise dressed appropriately. She was wearing a loose blouse and a pair of jeans with sandals. It was still hot as hell and he figured her hair would either be dry by the time they got there or everyone would think she was just sweaty.

"What?" she demanded, seeing him scanning her appearance. "And by the way, I don't meet up with rich girlfriends. I don't have any girlfriends anymore. But thanks for reminding me. And thanks for being so sweet after last night. You're a real charmer, Goren."

It stung but he had expected it. He didn't answer her but held the door open for her. He'd never seen her this angry over anything. She really was acting like a teenage brat, he thought. They made their way onto the subway platform and boarded the train silently. He thought about trying to say something to her, but anticipated it wouldn't end up well, so he kept his mouth shut.

Her stony silence continued after their arrival at the office. He dutifully took his chair across from Eames as Rayden stormed past him, entered Deakins' office, and slammed the door. Eames watched the two of them curiously, and then, noting her lack of coffee, turned to Goren. "I don't know what is going on," she said under her breath, "but it sure as hell would have gone over better if we all had some coffee."

******************************************

"I quit." Deakins had looked up when his door had slammed shut, seeing a red-eyed and furious woman staring down at him. He sat back in his chair, trying to give her his full attention. Shit. She looked like shit. This was harder on her than he anticipated.

He sighed. "Sit down, Rayden."

"No thank you," she returned, anger clearly seething through every syllable. "I'm not here to discuss anything. I'm just informing you that I quit. I would have done it via phone but Goren insisted I put in a personal appearance to thank you--"she drew the words out as much as she possibly could--"for everything you've done for me. So thanks, Captain. Thanks for bringing me back to profile DUIs and sit in an office and watch a clock. Thanks for turning me into bait for my attacker without letting me know. Thanks for teaming me up with that- that- Lydia woman. Thanks for all of it. But no thanks. I'm done. Apparently I've got manicures and massages to get to."

He stood and held both hands out. "Whoa," he started, "back up. You know this is procedure, not me. And I didn't partner you with Lydia Price. If you are really having that tough of a time with her, then we can see about somebody else. But as for bait...nobody tried to turn you into bait. You asked to come back. You know as well as any of us that Forrester is quite likely watching to see when you would. Anything we put into play to keep him away from you is as much to protect you as it is to catch him. And what the hell are you talking about manicures and massages for?"

She sunk into the chair across from him. "I don't know," she admitted. "Something Goren said."

Deakins sat down again across from her. "Vanessa." His voice was quiet, soothing. She remembered hearing it at the hospital, during the haze of the first day. He had sat with her, telling her she would be okay, and he would make sure of that. But she wasn't, and they both knew it. He had failed his promise. He realized that now as he looked at her, shrunken in the chair, her eyes evading his. Failed miserably. He cleared his throat. "Are you sure you're ready for this?"

She didn't move, didn't respond. She knew the answer but had a hard time admitting it to herself. It had been a lot easier to blame him. To blame Lydia. To even blame Goren.

Deakins tried again. "No one will think any worse of you if you start back later. If you need more time."

She looked at him then, and he could see the inner turmoil on her face. "I'll think worse of me," she responded.

He didn't know what to say to that. Three months ago she had been brilliant, dynamic. One of the best damn reps in the NYPD. And now...

"I've been punished for being a victim," she finally said. "I'm being punished now."

"I wish you didn't see it that way."

She laughed. "Yeah. It'd be great if I could somehow carry on the facade of everyone around me. I feel like the kid who saw the emperor with no clothes on." She paused. "I can't do anything about it, can I?"

Deakins shook his head. "No."

"Then if it's all right with you, I'm going to go."

He paused for a moment. "You'll be back when you're ready, Rayden. Don't rush it." He pushed his chair back to stand again. "Have Goren take you home."

She stopped at his door. "That's okay," she replied. "I can take a cab. Or the subway." Seeing his expression turn to one of concern, she said, "Don't worry, captain...he won't be back for awhile. Trust me, he's anticipating your next move." With that, she opened the door and walked into the bullpen.

Vanessa headed to her office and shut the door behind her. She sat in her chair and thought about this morning. How she had hit below the belt when Goren had tried to get her to do the right thing. How she had turned into someone she didn't know when Lydia had challenged her. Her own timetable for recovery was, apparently, incorrect.

She still hadn't gone back to the apartment. Lydia had asked her about it once but she had ignored the question. She thought about all of the victims she had worked with, all of the women who had revisited crime scenes trying to give them more to go on. Yet here she sat, police department employee, unwilling to take that step. Even with the assistance of her friends. She had left behind a condo worth over three million dollars. One that included all of her instruments, her home studio, and all her session recordings. Everything she held dear, with the exception of Bruce. And she hadn't looked back.

She pulled out a piece of paper, unsure of what she wanted to write, but finally began and let the words spring from somewhere inside her. Somewhere Goren would recognize, she thought. If he was blatantly honest with her,even in uncomfortable situations, she could at least do the same. She finished the letter, folded it and placed it in an envelope, writing his name on the outside. Looking around her office, she realized Deakins was right. She had no business being here yet. She was still fractured. Horribly fractured.

Closing the office door behind her, she walked through the bullpen and left the letter on his desk. He wasn't there; her logical guess was that he and Eames were out in the field. Hopefully he would read it and understand.

Taking the elevator down to the lobby, she left the building and headed toward the subway. An hour later she was standing outside Lydia Price's office. The last place she wanted to be. The one place she needed to be. She entered the waiting area.
A minute later Lydia appeared.

"Vanessa." She sounded surprised.

"Hi." She felt self-conscious, highly aware. "Um, I was out of line...I'd like to apologize...to schedule an appointment again..."

Lydia opened the door to her office. "I actually have some time right now, if you're willing."

She took a deep breath. "Okay," she said, entering Lydia's office. "Okay."

*********************************

She was putting the finishing touches on the roast when he walked in that evening.

"Hi," she said, as friendly as she could muster, nervous of his reaction to her. She had braced herself for it all day. What could come of the words she had said and then the words she had written. But he needed to know. He needed to understand.

Goren didn't answer her, but headed toward the kitchen, where she was standing over the pot roast. He smiled. "Looks good," he commented. His body was close to hers, and she felt her hands shaking. "Need any help?"

"I think we're good," she responded. "Plate?"

He took one from her hand and served himself from the counter. It had been ages since he had eaten pot roast. Not since he was a kid, he thought. And it smelled fantastic. She must have been working on it for awhile.

She took her plate and joined him at the table. He looked pleased, and had already begun to eat. "This is great. Thanks...it must have taken you all afternoon."

"Not really," she admitted. "I took some shortcuts." She continued to watch him eat with gusto, and couldn't help but wonder if he had actually read the letter she left him. Or if they really had the snippy exchange that she remembered from the morning.

After another minute, he looked at her again. "You're not eating." He motioned with his fork to her plate.

She sat back. "Did you read the letter I left for you?"

He took another bite of his potatoes. "Of course I did." After swallowing, he asked, "Aren't you going to eat? It's really good."

Now she crossed her arms. "So I poured my heart out to you in a letter and you're not even planning to discuss it with me?"

His eyes met hers and he froze, fork mid-air. "I didn't realize you wanted to discuss that right now." Slowly, everything seemed to click for him. The dinner, her nervousness. She thought the letter changed everything. Or maybe changed nothing. He wasn't sure of anything, except that he had misread her, this whole situation. Damn.

"It's okay," she told him, pushing her chair away from the table. "We don't have to talk about it. Really, we don't." She stood up, and he watched her walk quickly to the bedroom. A minute later the door shut, and he was sitting alone. Just the pot roast and him.

He stood slowly, trying to think of what he wanted to say. It's not like he hadn't had all day to think about it. After he had read the letter, he had felt a warmth in his chest, a comforting after the morning's rough start. He knew that she was doing the best she could. He knew that she wanted him to know that. And he was proud, immensely proud of her for realizing that she wasn't ready to be at work. For admitting, not only to him but to herself, her own limitations.

He knocked on the bedroom door. "Vanessa?" No answer. He tested the door handle to see if she had locked it. She hadn't. He stood there debating what to do. It didn't take long for him to decide to enter.

She was laying on her back on the bed, staring at the ceiling, with Bruce next to her. Both hands buried in his fur.

"You...uh...did you think I was angry or something?"

He knew she had. She had as much as said so in the letter. A long apology for the things she had said. An admission to how much he meant to her, how isolated and lonely she was. That she appreciated him and she wanted him to know that she didn't take his friendship for granted. Even on a morning like this one.

She glanced down at him, not moving. "I guess I just thought you would say something."

He half smiled. "I'm sorry. I just figured it was over. You didn't mean it, you apologized. And I should apologize too...my frustration got the better of me this morning. Anyway," he said,"I don't think either of us are in positions where we can afford to hold grudges."

She thought about that. "Bobby," she finally said, "what are you getting out of this? I'm just a big pain in your ass."

"That's not true," he argued. "I enjoy your company. Besides, you make a great dinner."

She sniffed. "You're a better cook than I am. Even Angie said so"

He snorted. "Right, because we all know how accurate Angie's assessments are. And anyway, not with pot roast. I haven't had that since I was a kid." They both sat for a moment, thinking, then he said, "I like your company. I like talking with you. I feel relaxed when you're here. I trust you."

"You're missing out on a lot because of me being here. You could be dating. You could avoid listening to my bitching. Never mind the crying fits. It's kind of ridiculous. I don't expect my own family to put up with this shit."

He didn't say anything. He found himself thinking about how there really was no one he had met, in a long while, who could hold a candle to how he felt about her. Funny. Smart. Passionate. And pretty. She was insanely pretty. He knew she didn't think so, but he'd have to be completely blind not to notice the long lashes, the deep brown eyes, the curves. The smile. When she was happy, that smile that spread across her face and lit up the room. He wished he could see it more often, now. He wouldn't take it for granted.

Eames had always joked about his penchant for what she referred to as "Amazon women", particularly brunettes. He'd never really found petite women that attractive. Too short when you're over six feet tall. But she was different. There was so much he thought about when it came to her, and none of it had to do with her height. He wondered briefly if her mind ever wandered in that direction too. If she ever thought about him as more than a friend.

"Vanessa," he said quietly, "I'm not missing out on anything." He moved closer to her on the bed, sitting next to her waist. She was still watching the ceilling.

"I made appointments to see a couple of apartments later this week," she said. "Hopefully I can be out of your hair in another week or two."

He shook his head. "You're not in my hair. And you can stay as long as you want."

She looked at him now. "You need your house back. Your bed back."

He grinned. "I'm on my bed. I'm just sharing."

"You know what I mean."

"So I'll sleep in here with you." It came out impulsively, and he laughed at the awkwardness of it.

Vanessa rolled onto her side, watching him. "You can do that," she said finally. "I wouldn't mind. I trust you."

He tried not to let his face betray his feelings. "I was just kidding."

She thought about that. Sharing a bed with him, without sex. Listening to his breathing, watching him sleep, smelling his pleasant, cologne and soapy skin smell. How safe she felt whenever he was near her. "I'm not."

After a moment, he responded, "It's just probably not a good idea, with all you're going through right now."

"I don't want to talk about that, " she began, then said," I always feel safe with you." She took his hand in hers, pulled it to her stomach. His hand lay flat against her belly, hers over his. After a moment, he began to stroke her belly softly, running his finger along the hem of her tank top, lightly touching the skin underneath. Her abdomen was soft and warm. She could tell from his expression that he was expecting her to stop him. But she didn't. She didn't want to.

A minute later he retracted his hand, sighing softly. "Vanessa...Vanessa," he tsked at her. Softly, "What are we doing here?"

She continued to watch his hand, now resting in his lap. "Honestly?" she asked. "Do you really want honesty?"

His face looked conflicted, but he nodded anyway. He knew the answer, but needed to hear it from her.

She took a deep breath, afraid but needy. "Falling in love, I think."

***************************************

Jillian turned to face her. "So, what do you think? Great bay windows, terrific view of the park...built in recording studio. And it's priced to sell."

Vanessa glanced at Ava, who was watching something in the park below. "It's a lot of space," she said finally. Forty-five hundred square feet, to be exact. Even bigger than her last place. She'd gotten used to Bobby's small one-bedroom and liked the coziness of it.

Ava continued to look out the window. "Security in this building...it's top notch, you said?"

Jillian smiled. "Absolutely. Front desk is always staffed. Nobody goes up or down without clearance. Security guards on 24/7. Alarms in every condo." Walking quickly to the front door, she pointed out the metal door, the sophisticated lock and alarm system. Ava watched her carefully while Vanessa wandered around the room.

"I think," Ava finally said, "she'll think about it...right, Ness?"

Vanessa turned around, looking from Ava to the realtor. "Yes...yes, I definitely will think about it." She walked toward the door, then turned to Jillian again. "Do you--is it possible to look at something smaller?"

Jillian smiled but looked skeptical. "With a studio? It's unlikely. Most recording artists want a bigger place."

Vanessa knew that was true. All of her friends from her previous career had lived in huge places.

Ava approached them. "What if there wasn't a studio in the place?"

Both Jillian and Vanessa looked at her, surprised. After a moment, Jillian responded, "Well...that changes a lot...of course, there are all sorts of options in a smaller market-"

"Maybe that's what we should be looking for," Ava said firmly. She nodded at Vanessa. "That's what you need."

Vanessa didn't respond. She followed Jillian and Ava out of the condo, trying to imagine herself calling it home.

*******************************************

"You know, you don't need a studio, Ness," Ava said as she maneuvered her way through the Manhattan traffic. "I thought you had given all that up."

Vanessa sighed. "Ava."

Ava sighed herself. After a moment, she said, "Why didn't you feel like you could contact me about this before now? I'm your sister, after all. Did you really think I wouldn't help you?"

Vanessa continued to look out the window. After a moment, she replied, "We just live such different lives, Ava."

Ava pulled the jeep over to the curb and parked. "Well, we're here...we'll talk more inside."

Vanessa climbed out, wondering why she had trusted Lydia on this. When she had suggested Vanessa contact her sister, Vanessa had laughed. The thought of Ava being some kind of support system seemed beyond ridiculous, like an inside joke that nobody else could understand. But she had trusted Lydia and done it anyway, and here they were. Condo-shopping and eating at Louie's.

They followed the server to a small table in the back, and Ava ordered them both diet cokes. After glancing at the menu, she put it down and looked at her older sister. "So," she stated. "What happened?"

Vanessa continued to peruse her menu as though it were an extremely interesting article. Talking with Ava continued to be one of the single most awkward things ever. "You already know...I told you..."

"You told me you were hurt by someone you used to work with. And could I help you look for a new place. How many holes are in that story, Vanessa? A cop hurt you? Or somebody else? And where are you living now? And why aren't you working?"

The waitress returned with the diet cokes and took their orders. Ava stuck with a grilled chicken salad. She was so damn predictable. Always the prettiest, the most driven, the most respectable. Ava probably weighed a hundred and ten pounds on a bad day. Just thinking about it made Vanessa hungrier for the club sandwich she had ordered.

"You know I care about you," she continued. "I am your sister after all. I know we've had disagreements in the past. But that was before...and this is now."

After a moment, Vanessa replied, "I was sexually assaulted a few months back. He didn't rape me but I spent a week in the hospital--bad concussion, lots of little injuries. I'm okay now...I just need to find a new place to live."

She watched Ava staring at her, mouth agape. "Why in the hell am I just hearing about this now? You were assaulted? If he didn't rape you then what did he do?" She put her drink down. "Scratch that--I don't want to know. Did you file charges? I can't believe you would keep this from me, Vanessa." She shook her head, as though Vanessa were a child incapable of making a rationale, responsible decision. " Who was taking care of you?"

True Ava form, Vanessa thought. All about Ava. "I took care of myself. I stayed at a hotel for awhile and now I'm staying with a friend. I just thought it might be good to...to touch base with you again. I knew you would be good at helping me find a new place." She glanced up, seeing her younger sister's mouth set in a firm line.

"Who's this friend?" she demanded.

The waitress arrived with their food, and Vanessa began to spread mayo on her club. "A friend from work," she replied. "I'm still on leave and can go back as soon as I feel ready."

"You know, you could have stayed with us." Ava was picking at her salad now. Vanessa wondered if she'd even eat it. She sounded hurt.

"You're a busy mom with a husband and your own business. I would have been intruding. And besides, Justin doesn't need to see me like that...it's been...rough some days." She tried to imagine her three-year old nephew being exposed to the meltdown she'd had a few weeks ago in Bobby's arms. Not a pretty sight.

Ava set her fork down. Nope, not going to eat, Vanessa thought. "If you had let us, we could have been your family...you know, sometimes family is a good thing. Someone who understands you. As different as we are, we are still related. I lived through the same childhood as you did, you know. I understand you better than any friend can."

You have no idea.

Ava continued as Vanessa took another bite of her sandwich. "I'm concerned about you, Nessie. You know we're both at higher risk for depression and anxiety because of Mom. You've already had...problems...in the past..." she sighed. "You know I found my peace with the Lord. I wish you would consider coming with us on Sunday." She took another sip of her drink. "You know Jesus loves you. He's just waiting for you to come home to Him."

Vanessa tried desperately to keep her eyes from rolling around in her head. She had her own beliefs in God, but none of them included Ava's form of religion. Vanessa considered it to be abject prejudice thinly veiled in religious beliefs. Most of the people she knew would be going to hell, according to Ava's church. "I appreciate your concern, as well as your offer," she stated slowly. "But really, it's such a great support for you to help me find a new place to live. You're really skilled at that, Ava. I trust your instincts on this stuff."

Ava sat back and picked up her fork again. "Then you're willing to let the studio go," she said. "You don't need it now anyway. It's part of your former life and best left there. A library would be far more appropriate...a forensic psychologist definitely needs her own library, work area."

Vanessa watched her continue to pick through her salad, choosing which leaves of lettuce she would eat, rolling grape tomatoes around in the bowl. How in the world did they end up related? Ava had never understood her. After their mother's death, Vanessa had become reclusive, turning to music and songwriting for comfort. Ava had ended up head cheerleader and one of the most popular girls in school. While Vanessa had gained weight and hidden in her music, Ava had dressed to the nines and attended every school function available. The weight of the albatross that was their mother's death hung heavily around Vanessa's neck but seemed to lift from Ava's when their mother died. And when Vanessa had fallen in with the wrong crowd, dyed her hair and smoked pot and hung out in all the wrong places, submitted her demo tape on a whim and been signed to a record label, Ava had attended a posh college for interior design, met and eventually married her husband David, and joined a fundamentalist Christian church. Vanessa was suddenly questioning Lydia's skill as a therapist once again.

"I don't think you understand," Vanessa heard herself say. "It's not an option."

Ava's mouth was still in that tight line as she continued to poke through the mesclun mix. "What's not an option?"

"The studio. It's what I do." She pushed a fry around in the ketchup.

Ava laughed as though she were conversing with a stubborn child. "Don't be ridiculous," she replied. "It's not what you do. You're a psychologist. You profile for a living. Of course you'll need room for your hobbies...but it's not like you're still recording."

"Yes," she said, "I am."

"What? In your spare time?"

"That's the point of an in-home studio, Ava," Vanessa said quietly. "It's important to me."

"It's ridiculous. Even you saw that...a ridiculous waste of space. What does one person need with that much space?"

Vanessa picked up the check. "Thanks for your help," she said. "I'll get this."

Ava quickly grabbed her arm. "Wait," she countered. "Don't leave over this. Sit down and at least finish that crap you call lunch."

She sat back down and they ate in silence, Vanessa working through the rest of her club and Ava dissecting her salad.

Finally, putting down her fork again, Ava looked at Vanessa. "I don't understand it," she confessed, and Vanessa knew it was true. "You know I absolutely hate that studio. I thought you had moved past it and on to more...productive...venues for your talents. Work that is more in line with a higher moral and ethical standard. But if you need the studio, we'll get you a place with a studio. I"ll even help to decorate it."

Vanessa smiled wryly. "You don't decorate a studio, Ava. It interferes with the sound."

"I meant the condo, Nessie...I wouldn't dare mess with your precious studio." She picked up the check. "I'll get this one. You get the next one." Ava picked up her purse and began to dig for her wallet. "I've already penciled you in for next Wednesday. Just know we're going somewhere that serves a decent lunch, though."

In spite of herself, Vanessa smiled. "Okay," she said. "That sounds fair."

**************************************

"So this is it, huh?" Goren had slowly strolled through each room. It was Saturday, and she had brought him out to see the condo she and Ava had visited a couple weeks before. The place was huge. Hardwood floors, bay windows, built-in recording studio. He couldn't begin to imagine life in a place like this.

"Yeah," she replied. "It's huge, isn't it? That's probably the biggest drawback--I've gotten used to a smaller place. I like the coziness of your apartment"

He smiled at her. "Yeah...but it's nice. Really nice, Ness. I like the windows. That and the balcony-" he nodded toward the french doors in front of him. They were standing in the master bedroom, looking out at the park. "Just imagine how often you and Bruce could sit out there in the evenings and read, or even just enjoy the view."

"It has a state of the art security system," she offered, walking to the pad by the french doors. "The front desk is always staffed and everyone is buzzed in or out. There's even an elevator operator, and security guards." She turned to look at him. "Ava offered to help with the decorating...I think it has a lot of potential." Despite herself, she was growing more excited with the idea of having her own place again. Her own stuff. Her own studio.

He laughed. "Maybe when she finishes here she can come work on my place."

Now Vanessa laughed. "You can't afford her, Goren. She's the Martha Stewart of interior design...or at least she thinks she is. She charges a fortune and I know even with the sister discount she's going to kill me." She walked to the center of the room, then spun around to face him. "So really, what do you think?"

He knew what he thought. The place was beautiful, perfect for her. He could see from her face, relaxed and happy, that she loved it. Safe and would meet all of her needs. Friendly for Bruce too, right to the doggie door leading out to the balcony. He didn't want her to go.

"I don't want you to go," he said gruffly. "But since you need to, this is the perfect place."

She smiled at him. The sun shining on him through the french doors. "I knew you'd like it," she said confidently, squeezing his hand.

**********************************************

They were in the mustang, heading back to his apartment, when she suddenly said it. "Stop."

"What? Are you okay?" He pulled over to the side of the road, miraculously finding a spot by the curb.

"Yeah," she said, "Fine." After a minute, she spoke again. "I need to go by my old place. I need to get a couple things."

He felt his heart beat faster, his gut tighten. She'd never asked to stop there before. She avoided it like the plague. He couldn't help but wonder what was bringing this sudden change about, what it was that she needed so desperately from her apartment. He had known for a long time she needed to go back, but had always assumed there would be a plan, almost an event. Not a whim like this. But he didn't want to curse it, whatever it was, so he didn't ask. "Okay."

They drove uptown until they reached her old building. She looked at the building carefully, as if it had a personality all its own. A history. Her history, held inside the brick and mortar. She remembered when she had first bought this apartment. Nineteen years old and more money than she ever deserved. It was close to the recording studio downtown and was classy and impressive. She'd never seen anything like it. Gorgeous inside. She could imagine herself in that luxury. And she had lived in it until almost four months ago when it became impossible. Approaching it now, her heart was beating incredibly fast. She hoped she didn't pass out or something. But she needed to go inside. She needed her music. Her conversation with Ava had made that clear to her--even if she stayed at Goren's place, she had to get her guitar.

Goren parked the car and turned off the ignition. They both sat in silence for several minutes, until she finally said, "Well, I need to go in." She wanted to ask him, with her whole heart and soul, to come with her. The very thought of entering the building brought bile to the back of her throat. When she heard his door open, she swallowed it down and followed him.

They approached her apartment door, and she fumbled for her key, finding it completely silly that she was still carrying it around every day, even though she hadn't been back in three months.

"Here," he said, holding out his hand. "Let me."

"No, I can do it," she said, holding her voice steady. She swore he could probably hear her heart beating outside of her body.

She finally inserted the key and the door gave way. They both stood in the doorway for another minute, and she surveyed the entryway. Nothing seemed out of place. She took a step inside, then walked into the living area. Goren followed her, closing the door behind him.

The room was clean and neat, with a fresh carpet smell to it. She noted the coffee table was gone, and Happy Housekeeping had managed to remove any trace of what had happened to her. She walked slowly to the center of the room and bent down, examining the carpet. It was amazing, not a twinge of blood. It was as though it all had never happened.

He watched her as she ran her hand over the carpet, then sat down in the middle of the room. Her eyes were focused on the television, and she pulled her knees up to her chest, before speaking softly.

"You were right. He got me by the hair."

He didn't know what to say to that, so he didn't speak. His gut told him that wasn't his job anyway. He was here to listen, to provide support and protection. She would face the demons as they came, and if he was lucky, tell him about them.

Her chin rested on her knees and she looked smaller that way. He was still amazed at how she could curl her body up in such a way that she looked like a child. "He tried to make me blow him, but I puked...I think maybe from the concussion...I hit my head pretty hard on that coffee table. Usually oral sex doesn't have that effect on me." She laughed to herself, as though making a joke of it somehow made it less disturbing. "I'm sure he was pissed as hell over that. It's not like I had held out a whole lot before with anyone. He knew that. He knew half the guys I had slept with, and they all talk in that business. He probably thought a blowjob was a sure thing." She sighed. "You know, take her out to dinner, she pays you back with a little oral action." He didn't say anything, unsure again if he was even supposed to. "After he beat me, he sat there-" she motioned to the armchair-"and watched TV. Kept flipping the channels. Smoked a cigarette." She absently ran her hand along the carpet again "Kind of pathetic...I just laid there. I always thought I'd do some bad ass Jackie Chan move and be on my feet in seconds. Didn't happen." Another pause. "Nobody smokes in my house. I guess it's not going to be mine any more though...Jillian will put it on the market next week."

"Ness." He was hesitant, unsure if he should even ask, but needing to know at the same time. "What started it?"

She pressed her head into her knees, covering her face from him.

"Never mind," he said quickly, not wanting to push her, but moreover, not wanting to make it any more painful. "It doesn't matter."

He started to stand, but she stayed still, face still buried in her knees. "I'm an idiot," she confessed. She knew she should have been smarter. How many times had she seen this in other cases? Why in the world had she thought she would be any different? "I invited him in for a drink. Apparently he thought that was code for spending the night...for sex. He went for it full steam ahead. I don't go like that, especially not anymore. Not on a first date for sure, and I told him to stop. I guess he thought I was playing with him. The more I resisted him, the more forceful he got. I told him to leave and he yanked me back. I guess that's when it stopped being a game and started being something else...I don't know...scary." She took a shaky breath. "I knew I was in trouble, so I pushed him and tried to run. I thought if I could get to the studio I could lock myself in and he would have to leave. But he got a handful of my hair and threw me into the corner of the table." She stopped. "I could taste the blood, then he was...well...you get the picture. And I puked." She pulled her head out from her knees. "You want to hear the irony? I had considered pinning my hair up that night, because I thought he would think it was sexy." She shook her head. ""That's pretty much the whole thing in a nutshell."

He reached over, touched her arm, sat down next to her. "You're not an idiot. And I wish you would stop blaming yourself."

She sat thoughtfully for a moment. "Sometimes I wonder why I didn't just do it. It's not like I was particularly picky my whole life. Keith knew that. He had seen it over and over. I've had way too many lovers. Guys I knew well and some guys I just knew. Some guys I hardly knew at all. I lived a horrible existence back then. Classic girl with removed parents, trying to find someone to love her. Confusing sex and love and all that stuff. If I had just done what he wanted me to do, none of this would have happened. It's not even like I hadn't thought about it that night. In fact, I had thought about it quite a bit. I gave up sex and relationships when I got out of the business. Five years since I had been with anyone. Can you believe that? Five fucking years. I was attracted to him and was ready to reconsider. Hell, we spent an hour making out in the car....I just got pissy when we got back here. He was so damn pushy that I changed my mind."

"You do realize," he said, "you had every right to say no at any point?"

She snorted. "Yeah. And look where it got me. I could have said yes, had some one-night stand like years past, and still be whole."

He considered that. "Ness," he said, " I know you. I don't think you're the same person you were back then. You've grown up and have a stronger sense of yourself. I don't think you were going to walk out of this whole, either way. If you had done what he wanted, you wouldn't have been able to live with that without consequences...for yourself."

"Maybe." She ran her hand over the carpet again, then smiled ironically. "Maybe I would have gone back to having sex with any guy who looked twice at me."

His hand caught hers on the carpet. "I know right now you're questioning this," he said,"but you're worth more than that. You deserve to be loved for who you are. Fully and completely. Not just sexually." He stopped for a minute, then tilted her face up to look at his. "You're a complete person. There's more to you than sex...or music...or forensics...or profiling..." He didn't know how to say what he was thinking, but was desperate to communicate his idea to her. "You're an amazing woman and you deserve someone who remembers that. Who lives by that creed." He took a deep breath. "A best friend and a lover. When you're ready." He felt the need to continue. "And not necessarily with me. With whoever you end up with. You deserve the best. Nothing less."

She watched his eyes, searching hers for confirmation, understanding. She knew he would never push her on this, and she wouldn't push him. That they could carry on in this comfortable status quo for a long time, both afraid of what the other would think of their next move. That he would stand by her and she would stand by him and they would treat each other as delicately and gently as a first love. And her heart was warm to him, even as her mind was questioning what all of it meant. For him, for her. For their tenuous, growing relationship. For seeing her soul and loving her anyway. And for opening up himself, as hard as it was, to meet her halfway.

Suddenly she stood and said, "I need to get my guitar." Quickly, she walked the length of the apartment to a room isolated on the north side. He waited patiently until she returned with an acoustic guitar and three discs.

"What're those?" he asked, taking them from her and following her out of the apartment.

She grinned as she swung the guitar by its strap over her shoulder as she locked the door. "You'll see. Trust me, you won't be disappointed."

*******************************************

Bobby laughed at her. "Play it again, but this time do it like on the album."

She grinned and pulled the guitar closer to her lap. She had been playing their favorite song, Clarity, but apparently he was done with the acoustic version. He wanted some soul.

She strummed the chord gently as he watched her. Trying not to laugh at his grin, she began strumming firmly and quickly, making the guitar match the passion of her voice.

You've never known what you did to me
Turned me around, inside out
Don't go thinking I could ever forget it
No, no it doesn't work that way
That's not what it's about
Today I took a look at you as the storm brewed round my head
And I had a moment of clarity
A moment defining my destiny
When I saw we were already dead-

When it comes for you you grab the ring
Grab the ring and swing
When it calls for you you don't ignore it
Clarity calls upon your wit
Clarity calls upon your wit

They sang together, above the noise of the guitar--loud and true and laughing--down to the last lyrics--

Clarity sent me on my destiny
Away from you and away from me.

She strummed the last chord, feeling the thrill that she always felt shiver down her spine. She had forgotten that feeling.

Goren was grinning at her like a cheshire cat. "So," he said after a minute, "what else can you play?"

She snorted at him. "Very funny. I didn't bring this over to give you a concert anyway. Those discs have songs I've recorded at home but have never released. If you get bored," she stated nonchalantly as she put down the guitar, "I thought you could listen to them and tell me what you thought."

He cocked his head to the side, still grinning. "I already know what I think about you and your...musical abilities."

They were sitting at opposite ends of the couch. She could tell he was teasing her, and she tucked her bare feet under her and replied, "Do tell."

"Well," he said, in his most professional profiler voice, "you've been playing for a long time. Studying even longer. Writing is a release for you, and you only speak your truth in your lyrics."

"Wow!" she feigned surprise. "You're as good at profiling songstresses as criminals!"

He laughed again. "Like it was hard or something. I really do love that song."

She fiddled with the pendant she was wearing. One Ava had given her the other day. A token of her affection. "You know, I wrote that six years ago when I broke up with my last boyfriend. I was ready to leave music period but I had a contract for one more album. You can hear how my heart wasn't in it anymore. I always felt kind of bad about that, like I let a lot of people down. But I felt like a cog in the machine, you know? Like it wasn't my work anymore, it was some polished mass product."

He pulled his feet up on the couch across from her. "Was it hard to walk away from?"

She shook her head. "Amazingly, not so much...once I got into NYU. The six months it took me to make that transition was difficult, though. And I questioned myself constantly. But then, there I was, in the psychology department and realizing how much I really loved what I was learning. I surprised myself. I expected I would go through and struggle and maybe even drop out after a couple of semesters. Go back to playing. Didn't happen. It's like this whole other door opened up and I was completely entranced. Of course, the fact that I could be entranced while sober and keeping my clothes on was a good thing, too. It made me feel good about myself." She paused, seeing a slight bit of confusion on his face. "I had a drug problem," she clarified. "It was part of the reason I got out of the field."

"Oh," he said, as though she had just informed him that she would be having the chicken instead of the meatloaf tonight. He felt embarrassed for her and frustrated with himself. "My brother has one of those." Stupid. Why in the world would you say something like that? She had just confided a huge piece of her past to him and he made it sound as though they were comparing kittens.

"I remember. You told me. A few weeks ago." She had pulled one of her feet out from under her and was examining her toenails, feeling awkward. Wanting to say more but not knowing what to say. He was still looking at her, with that strange, peering look of his. "I..um...well, you know in the music field it's pretty rampant. Everybody wants a piece of you and they think they can get it if they offer you something in return...I was more an experimenter, and as embarrassing as it is to admit, I did whatever the person I was with at the time was doing." She sighed. "I finally woke up, all of twenty-two years old, realizing I was going to be burned out and dead by twenty-five if I didn't find something else to do. Of course, the fact that I didn't know the name of the guy laying next to me was a pretty significant wakeup call too." She looked up. "What's your brother's poison?"

Bobby suddenly realized how awkward she must be feeling, because he was feeling it too. "I'm, um, not really sure," he admitted. "Gambling is a big one, so probably alcohol too..I just know he uses."

She nodded. "Well, most addicts don't go around confiding their drug of choice to people who don't share their interests." She looked back at her foot, the one she had pulled out a moment before. "Anyway, I think most people have addictions. To something. Drugs, alcohol, gambling, and sex are just the ones with the bad raps. I mean, you're addicted to work, right? If you were me, you would have thrown yourself over the balcony by now."

He cleared his throat. "I-uh...it's the thrill of the chase, I think," he confessed.

She smiled.

He reached out his arm. "Hey, hand me that thing...I want to try it." She passed him the guitar and watched him fumble aimlessly with the strings, plucking out random notes. She felt giddy and giggly, watching him. He was trying so hard to make some sort of musical sound.

His feet were flat in front of him, knees up, guitar perched in his lap as he continued to pluck around with her pick. She brought her feet up, toes touching his, looking at them together. Her feet were average size for a woman, she thought, although a little wide. She had always hated that--it made finding comfortable and fashionable shoes difficult. By comparison, though, his feet were massive. She started to laugh.

He stopped playing and held up one hand. "Okay, okay, I get it," he laughed, pretending he was going to toss the pick at her. "I suck at this!"

She laughed too, but pointed to his feet. "I wasn't laughing at your playing, dork. Your feet are massive...how do you find shoes that fit? You're like a human bigfoot without the hair!"

He glanced down at his feet. "Size thirteen," he said proudly, like he had had some control over the size of feet God had given him. "And I shop in a specialty store."

"What kind? Giants R Us?"

"Very funny, smart ass!" He put the guitar down and laid the pick on the end table. "What about you? You hiding princess feet under there?" He motioned to the area under her calves, where she had quickly hidden her own.

She grinned. "Maybe. Maybe I'm just a princess stuck in a profiler's body...did you ever think of that? At least I don't have to register my feet as potential weapons of mass destruction!"

"You're a regular laugh a minute tonight, aren't you?" he chuckled and reached over to pull her feet out from under her. "Let me see!"

She squealed and pulled back as he kept grinning and trying to grab her feet. He missed and got her knee. With a funny grunt of frustration he quickly tried to grab her calf. Vanessa was laughing now too and leaned forward with all her weight to push him back. Surprised, he fell backward toward the end of the sofa, hitting his head on the upper corner.

"Ow!" he said, rubbing his head and still laughing. She was pressed against his chest, still giggling.

She tried to catch her breath. "Serves you right!"

He chuckled again, then ran a finger along her jawbone. "Yeah," he sighed, slowly, still smiling at her. "I guess it does."

She felt frozen, pressed against him, feeling as though she should move but not wanting to. She trusted him. And she knew in her gut he trusted her too. So in a decision that took a second that seemingly lasted forever, she decided to stay right where she was--firm against his chest, arms on his shoulders.

The smile on Bobby's face was still there, but he looked as though he were reminiscing over some beautiful memory that she had reminded him of. His fingers moved softly up the side of her face as his eyes met hers. His eyes were happy. Genuinely happy.

He cupped the left side of her face in his hand and slid his thumb down to her mouth, tracing her lips. She continued to watch him carefully. She knew what she was doing. A voice inside of her began to lecture about timing but she shushed it quickly, locking it out of her brain. She didn't want to think. Love had no logic to it anyway, she figured. She opened her mouth slightly to his thumb and kissed it gently, slowly. His eyes were watching hers intently, and the question she had seen in them disappeared.

He cupped her face in both hands softly and pulled her toward him. She thought about how it was just a tiny lean in, and their kiss would be complete, this intimacy they shared and danced around with finally concrete in some form. She knew he was afraid, terribly afraid, of taking advantage of her, so she rose up on her knees, wrapped her arms around his neck, and softly pressed her mouth to his.

Soft, gentle. He smelled like soap and shampoo and a tinge of cologne leftover from the morning. He never let go of her face. Twice, three times, he brushed his lips softly against hers, caressing her upper lip with his mouth, then the bottom lip, exploring slowly. The fourth time, she stayed with him, letting her tongue slide out of her mouth and taste his lips.

He hesitated. They both felt it. His biggest fear was waking up in the morning and having her realize a terrible mistake; the mistake of kissing him, of being pushed too far too quickly; the mistake of loving him. The very thought ran through his veins like ice. He needed her now; he couldn't imagine a day without hearing her laugh or listening to her snarky comments or watching some ridiculous cooking show on Food Network. But she was so graceful, her eyes so certain, her tongue so warm and wet and desirable to him, that he finally acquiesced.

His mouth opened slightly and her tongue softly touched his. She settled in his lap, running her hands through his hair, wondering if fingers and tongues could communicate as much as words could. She could feel him relaxing against her and she tasted his mouth, feeling more attracted and aroused than she had felt in years. Then his tongue was stroking hers, tasting her teeth, laving the insides of her mouth as though he couldn't get enough of her. As though he was where he always wanted to be. Where he belonged.

She felt her body go slack against his, lying against him, and she tangled her fingers in his hair more deeply, holding his head close in case he decided to pull away. His tongue was softly touching the tip of her own, as intimate as any lover she had ever had, and her entire body was responding. Her own reactions were so intense they scared her. If she were with anyone else, this exercise would have been over.

But she wasn't. She was with Goren. She loved this man, God how she loved him--from his singing voice to his laughter to his gentle protective nature. After a couple more moments, their tongues gently separated and she pulled back slightly, still stroking his hair, then softly kissing his lips once more.

Bobby moved his fingers to her hair, playing, weaving the strands through his fingers. She curled up against him, comfortable in his lap. After a moment, he leaned toward her ear. "I-um...you..." he sighed. "I'm gonna miss you when you go."

She pressed her head backward, against his chest. "Me too, Bobby." She was plucking at the sleeves of his shirt, removing imaginary lint.

He watched her hair in his fingers. Deep, shiny brown. It smelled like coconut. "You can come here any time. You can keep a key."

She pulled away from him then, standing up and stretching. It was well past midnight, but her movement was so sudden that he wondered, briefly, if he had done something wrong. Then she turned around and smiled at him.

"You know," she said, as though making an offhand remark, "when Forrester had me in a bungled mess on the floor, I wondered if I would make it out of that apartment alive. I thought about it probably a million times while I was lying there. I was kind of making my own bucket list, what to do if I made it out, before I really kicked it." She looked down for a minute, then back at him. He was watching her closely, knowing this was important but hating that it was the followup to their first kiss. "I had an epiphany that I waste way too much time not being me, not being honest with other people. I know why I'm not. But it's still a waste." She smiled shyly at him for a moment. "I've told you before...I feel safe here. It's because I have room to be myself. You give me room."

He felt the need to speak but didn't know what to say, so he didn't say anything. She saw his struggle, but it didn't bother her. She hadn't expected him to comment.

"At any rate, I know you won't say it, but I wanted you to know. I love you, Goren."

She turned and walked to the bedroom, Bruce trailing behind her. The door closed softly, and he found himself alone, her words floating in the air like perfume and for once he wanted to be enveloped in them, to stay buried in the phrase and everything it implied. He closed his eyes and could sense her lips still against his. He decided, as he turned out the light and clutched the guitar pick in his hand, that he was one truly lucky son of a bitch.

*******************************************

"So," Lydia asked, taking her coffee mug and sitting across from Vanessa, "how's life?"

Vanessa pondered that for a moment. She didn't know where to start. Weekly sessions had seemed so overwhelming at first. Now it seemed like a lifetime could happen in seven days.

"I took your advice and called my sister. She helped me to find a place," she said hesitantly. "Ava's not crazy about it because it's big and it has a studio. But I like it okay, and it's in my price range. The owner's quick to make a deal."

Lydia smiled. "That's pretty exciting."

"Yeah," Vanessa replied, picking at the tip of her thumb. Suddenly she thought about Bobby's thumb on her lips the other night. It made her smile.

Lydia noticed. "You look happy."

Vanessa quickly glanced up, out of her reverie, cynicism on her face. She was not about to share any part of whatever she and Goren had with Lydia. "Well, I'll be glad to be settled. Although it's still painfully clear that Ava doesn't get me any more than she did before. She's still begging me to go to church and commit my soul to the Lord as she knows Him."

"How do you know Him?"

"What?" Vanessa was caught off guard by the question.

"I asked you how you knew God."

She thought about that for a minute. "I'm not really sure. I believe I have faith, but sometimes it feels like it's been eroded, or maybe never given a chance to develop. When I was a kid, my mom would beg Jesus to protect us and to make her well. It never worked. She stayed as fucked up as she had been on the day I was born, I think. As I got older, I questioned a lot. How God could allow certain things to happen." She regarded her fingernail again, frowning. "I just don't think my answer lies in a church that breeds hate." Now she looked at Lydia, head on. "Ava believes that anyone who deviates from her church's particular belief system is going to Hell. That would include you and me, and probably ninety percent of the people that I cherish in my life. The only way to God is to repent and declare Christ as your savior. I'm just not up for the dunking."

Lydia half-smiled. "You realize you've completely avoided my question. You've told me what Ava believes. Not what you believe."

She sighed. "You want me to talk about what I was thinking when it happened, don't you?"

Lydia uncrossed and recrossed her legs. "It's up to you."

Vanessa gave a hollow laugh. "Right." She scratched at her index finger. If she didn't quit picking at her nails, she'd have none. Horrible habit. "Okay. I was scared. When I hit the table, I was scared shitless. It happened so fast that I couldn't even really process that he had me by the hair until I was down and bleeding. And in that moment, as he was shoving his cock in my mouth and I was gagging and puking, I was thinking over and over: please God, please help me." She stopped speaking, embarrassed by the words she had chosen to put with the memory.

Lydia didn't say anything, but had leaned forward, hands intertwined, watching her client struggling. It was the first time that Vanessa had ever described in any detail what had happened to her. After a long moment, Lydia drew a breath. "And it didn't end then."

"No," she admitted. "He was just getting warmed up, I guess." The silence in the room was deafening, but she could hear the roar of blood in her ears. The same as that night. "He started cursing at me, calling me a bitch and a whore...a filthy tramp...then he grabbed my head again and rubbed it into the carpet where I had puked."

"What were you thinking when that happened?"

"Please, God, make him stop."

"But he didn't. Not for a long time."

"No." Silence again. "He took off his belt. I thought he was going to rape me. He yanked my clothes off. One of my favorite tee shirts. He ripped it. Yanked off my jeans from the bottom. It happened so fast." She stopped again, aware that she sounded somewhat robotic, but thinking it was the only way she'd ever get it out. "He laughed at my body. He told me I was a has-been and he couldn't believe he had wanted to fuck me. That I was disgusting." She took a shaky breath. "The belt--he hit me as hard as he could. Over and over...and I guess the kicking was for good measure."

Lydia exhaled softly. "And what were you thinking then?"

"Please God, get me out of here alive."

The clock ticked softly and Vanessa looked at it. Something to focus on other than the present. For some reason she really liked Lydia's clock. Maybe because it was like a key to her prison--she knew she could count on it to let her go at the appointed time.

"You made it out."

"Huh?"

"You had said that you prayed for God to get you out. And you made it. You survived."

"Yeah."

"And so what do you tell yourself now?" Lydia's thumbs turned up in her interlaced fingers.

"I tell myself...I tell myself that God has other plans for me. I tell myself that the things Keith said aren't true. I tell myself that God believes I'm worthwhile. That Keith was disturbed and doesn't know who I am." Her eyes looked down and she stared at her feet for a moment, contemplating honesty. "Then I tell myself not to listen to my conscience when it whispers he was right."

********************************************************

"So you're living here?" Ava's nose had turned upward as soon as she had seen the building. They climbed out of the parked car, Ava still looking as though she were smelling rotten eggs. "Who's this friend?"

"Someone I work with. I already told you." Vanessa pulled her key out and guided Ava to the elevator. She pressed the button to go to the second floor, trying to ignore Ava's reactions.

Ava wrinkled her nose. "Vanessa, it smells in here. Like an old person."

"It's an apartment building, Ava. And an old one at that. Don't worry...if you get the wrinkle out of your nose, I'll let you into the apartment, and it smells better in there." Like Bobby, she thought. Ava followed her to 206, and Vanessa unlocked the door.

Bruce greeted them quickly. "Hey boy!" Vanessa exclaimed softly, scratching the back of his head. After a moment, she looked up to see Ava carefully inspecting the place.

"Well," she stated, "it certainly doesn't have a woman's touch. Who is this guy--why does he have a library in his house?"

Vanessa shook her head. "He enjoys reading. How terrible to be educated. You ready for lunch or not?"

"Sure." Ava continued looking around, as though she were expecting someone to jump out of a door. "Where is he? Are you involved with him?"

"He's at work, Ava. You know, what most people are doing at lunchtime on a Thursday?" Vanessa pulled out the pasta salad from the fridge.

Ava crossed her arms. "This is a one bedroom."

Vanessa ignored her, pulling bowls down from the cabinets. Looking up, she asked, "Water or tea?"

"So you're sleeping with him. Vanessa, he is taking advantage of you right now. You've got to know you're not in a place to have a relationship with anyone right now...much less some cop."

She froze for a second, dropping an ice cube in the glass, then continued preparing the lunch. "I guess tea," she said offhandedly. "I know how you like tea."

"Right. What's he drink, Lipton? Look, I'm sure he's a real classy guy...one of your cop friends...all culture and whatever. Are you kidding me?"

Vanessa put both glasses on the table, along with the pasta salad and the bowls. Ava was still staring at her, arms crossed, now tapping her foot. She wasn't used to having to wait for a response.

"Sit?" Vanessa motioned to the table but Ava didn't move. Vanessa pulled her chair out and had a seat.

"Nessie," Ava said, softer now, calmer. "I'm just trying to look out for you. This guy may be nice but he's not your speed. You and I don't live like this. Old apartment buildings? One bedrooms? Whatever he's told you, you are not indebted to him."

"Enough," she said quietly, reaching for the salad.

"Ness-"

"Ava." Vanessa looked at her sister, and stopped the impending lecture. She could see the concern in Ava's eyes. It would have made her laugh if it hadn't been so sincere. "I sleep in the bedroom. He sleeps on the couch. He sat with me in the hospital and has taken me to my doctor appointments. He's held me when I cried and never put a single move on me. If you look around you'd see he reads stuff way beyond most people. He's damn good at his job and one of the most loyal, wonderful people I've ever met. The only good thing that has come out of this."

Ava relaxed her arms a bit but didn't sit down. "Nessie, you know I just want what's best for you. You're a beautiful young woman with a lot of money. I'd hate to see someone--you know--"

Vanessa forced herself to take a bite of the pasta. "Keith--that guy who attacked me?--he had his own money. Probably more than me. Money doesn't buy character, Ava." She sipped her water for a moment, then motioned for the chair again. "You'd be a lot more comfortable sitting down. Besides, I made this salad all by myself. You don't want to miss out."

Ava slid into the chair next to her sister. Vanessa passed the salad and Ava took a small bowlful. "This looks good," she said hesitantly. "So you made it yourself?"

"Pretty much. I think Bobby helped cook the pasta."

Ava shot a sharp look at Vanessa. "So he cooks?"

"Yes." Vanessa picked up a grape tomato with her fork. "He's multi-talented."

Ava finished pushing her bowtie pasta around. "Well," she announced, "I want to meet him."

"I'll keep that in mind." Vanessa cleared the table "Sorbet?"

Ava snorted. "Did he make that too?"

"No, I bought it down the street."

"All right," Ava sighed. "Just a small scoop. I need to watch my weight."

************************************************

Goren entered the apartment quietly and closed the door, locking it behind him. It was almost midnight, and he was exhausted. Traveling back and forth each week to see his mother upstate was always difficult, but today she had been especially out of sorts. The doctor explained that the new medication she was on seemed to be having some side effects, and they were working through them. This as his mother demanded him, pulling at her hair and crying his name. He had pushed past the doctor and tried to comfort her, gently guiding her hands away from her head, emptying the fists of the tufts of hair she had pulled out. God. He was forty-three and could barely handle this. Sometimes he wondered how he ever managed as a kid. Then he remembered there hadn't been any options.

Tossing his keys down on the end table, he kicked off his shoes and wandered into the kitchen. He opened the fridge and grabbed the plate Vanessa had left for him. Chicken and rice. She was a simplistic cook for sure, but it was always edible, and he was thankful for that. Between the two of them, neither ever went hungry.

After heating the plate in the microwave, he sat down at the table and began to pick at it, a spoonful here and there as he perused his newest copy of Time. That's when he first heard the rumble outside.

He stopped eating, unsure for a moment if he had really heard thunder, and cursing God for nature's storm. He was so tired, so ready to just eat and read and collapse on the sofa until morning. He knew what the thunder would bring--the terrifying nightmares and need for comfort that she didn't seem to be able to get away from. He knew he would hold her, stay with her if it took til morning. He couldn't stand the thought of not doing it, despite his own need for sleep and comfort.

Lightning lit the sky and thunder boomed, much closer this time. Loud. After a moment, he picked up his fork, thinking he would get a few more bites in before going into the bedroom to check on her.

But it didn't happen that way. She had heard it too, rumbling in the distance, as she lay in the dark next to Bruce. The rumble had awoken her, as it always did, and she was practicing the deep breathing that Lydia had taught her. Remain calm, she ordered herself. You're here, at Goren's, and you're safe. Then the lightning had lit up the room and the roll of thunder crashed nearby. It was too hard to stay still.

She had slipped out of the bed and approached the bedroom door. She hoped he had made it home, and found herself worrying about him driving in the impending storm. The fact that her worry was focused on him rather than herself pleased her immensely. She felt as though she finally had some tangible proof that she was moving out of her victimization.

Quietly, she opened the bedroom door. From the doorway, she could see him, perched over a magazine, plate in front of him. She wondered when he got home, if he had beaten the storm, if he was eating the food she left for him. She stepped forward, and saw him rise from the table and cover the plate back up. He placed it in the refrigerator, then turned around, suddenly facing her. He looked different, worn. Not like she had seen him before. And she knew--knew things hadn't gone as planned with his mother.

But when he spoke, he asked her, "Are you okay?"

She smiled. "I'm fine. Just heard the thunder is all, and wanted to make sure you made it home okay." She surveyed him. He was shoving his hands in the pockets of his jeans.

"I'm fine," he replied. "Why don't we go sit on the couch until it's over?"

She didn't say anything, didn't move, and this reaction was so different he didn't know what to make of it. So he stood there looking back at her, until she finally spoke. "You look like hell," she said finally.

He looked away from her. After a minute, he said, "It was a difficult night."

She took a step toward him, then stopped. "So let's just go to bed."

He turned back toward her and shook his head. "I know how this is for you. I'm not going to let you face it alone."

Now she shook her head. "I meant in the bedroom. You had a shitty night, and I'm going to have one if you're not around. Just come lay with me." She paused. "I'll even kick Bruce to the floor for you. And I promise to behave myself." She grinned, as though the thought of her touching him should be funny.

His eyes narrowed, arms crossed. "I don't need you to take care of me, Vanessa. I can manage myself."

"Yeah, I know. So can I. And yet somehow you keep hanging around, trying to kiss it and make it better. What the hell are we thinking?"

Bobby laughed despite himself. "I have no fucking idea," he said mindlessly. Then, uncrossing his arms, "Bed sounds good to me. Really good, actually," he admitted.

"Then come on." She nodded to the bedroom door, and he followed her. closing the door behind himself.

She looked at him and he shrugged. "Habit, I guess."

She climbed back in on the left side, under the covers, and watched as he walked around to the right side of the bed and grabbed a blanket off the chair.

"You're kidding, right?" she asked him.

"About what?"

"Sleeping in your clothes? On top of the covers? With a blanket, on your own bed?" She rolled her eyes. "What, are we preserving my chastity now? Didn't I just promise to behave?"

The thunder boomed louder and the rain hit the window with a vicious tapping. He sighed, then pulled his shirt off before grabbing a tee out of the chest of drawers. Jeans hit the floor next, which he neatly deposited into the hamper. "Happy now?"

"I'm happy that you trust me not to jump you," she replied, and he couldn't help but smile.

Sliding into the bed next to her, he was acutely aware of how much this matched his fantasy of life with her. How he could live this, every night and every morning and never tire of it. He could smell her coconut shampoo and that fruity body wash she used, and knew she had showered before bed. His mind was beginning to wander in the places it really didn't need to go and he felt a rush go through him. Like an adolescent male, he chided himself. Don't think about it. You're too old for this.

But she moved closer to him, resting her head on his chest, listening to the rain and the thunder of the storm. He wrapped an arm around her protectively and let his lips settle on the top of her head. He knew she knew, even if he couldn't say it. He knew she knew he loved her.

They lay in silence for several minutes before she said, "I'm sorry it was so rough with your mom."

He sighed. "How did you know?"

She ran a hand over his stomach. "You wear it on your face." After a moment, she propped her chin up on his chest and looked at him. "Sometimes it's okay to let somebody else share it with you. Take it from me. It's a good lesson I've been learning."

He smiled at her, stroking her hair. "I'm trying. I'm just not used to it."

She lay her head back down on his chest, still running her hand across his stomach softly. "Neither was I," she said. "But some people are so damn stubborn they just won't quit until you take the damn help. You'll get used to it," she repeated.

The room lit up again and the thunder rumbled. He smiled to himself, thinking about her vague reference to his comfort the last time there was a storm. This is what she's felt like, he thought. This is how vulnerable she let herself become with me.

Her hand had stilled and he knew instinctively she had fallen asleep, despite the storm. Warmth spread over him, and his fingers ran up and down her arm gently. He closed his eyes, finally able to put the thoughts of his mother to rest, if just for a little while, and replace them with thoughts of him and Rayden together. Vulnerability, he thought sleepily, may be the key to this relationship thing. That and trust.

And as he listened to the rain on the windows, he realized that he was willing to try.

********************************************

"Damn boxes," she muttered. "Either too big or too small."

She was shoving her clothes into the packing boxes. They had closed on the condo earlier in the week and it was all ready for her to move. Bobby had tried to talk her into waiting until the weekend, so that he could help her, but she felt the need to move forward, so she had purchased some packing boxes and now was aimlessly shoving everything she could find that was hers into them.

She knew this move was going to be hard for both of them. After last weekend, when they had laid in bed all night and into the late morning together, she realized how difficult it was going to be to live somewhere else. To eat by herself, to sleep alone, to even play her guitar in an empty apartment. But she knew if she couldn't live by herself now, she would never do it again. And the thought of being that dependent on anyone, even Bobby, scared the shit out of her.

So she was rushing, as though he wouldn't notice if he came home and saw her shit shoved in boxes. He knew she was planning to move out over the weekend. Other than offering to help her pack, he hadn't really commented either way. Earlier in the morning he had said he would go to see his mother on Sunday if she wanted to move out on Saturday, so that he could help her. She told him thanks, she appreciated him, and would love his help to get settled. He had smiled and finished his coffee before giving her a quick hug and going to work.

She taped up one of the boxes and sighed, wondering what would happen once she didn't live here any more. Would he still be as interested? As attentive? Would she? How would she know when he needed her? It's not like he was great at communicating that stuff--in fact, if she hadn't been here last Saturday night, she would have never known. She knew he would never have admitted how helpless he had felt with his mom.

She heard the front door open and shut, and she quickly taped the second box closed, as though the tape would somehow hide what she'd been up to.

"Hey," he said, standing in the doorway. "Packing already?"

She grinned. "Yeah...I think I've found my second calling. I should let you unpack these when I move...you'd be impressed."

"Mm-hmm." He tapped his shoe against the door frame for a second. "You up for dinner out? My treat?"

She stood up and put her hands on her hips. "Uh, you're in a suit and I'm in sweats. Any suggestions?"

"Sure," he smiled. "Give me ten minutes to change and we'll go somewhere casual. I'll even buy you a drink."

"Okay...but don't go breaking the tape and nosing through my stuff, Goren...I've got a profiler's eye, you know."

He pretended to swat at her as she left the room. Closing the door, he dug through his closet and pulled out a henley, then a pair of jeans from the dresser. He tried to pretend that the boxes in the floor didn't bother him, that it was normal and good for her to be moving on. He caught himself suddenly, realizing what he had just told himself. She wasn't moving out, she was moving on. And he didn't know what that meant for him.

Fifteen minutes later they were down the street at a local pub. They settled in at a table. "What are you drinking?" he asked her.

Without hesitation, she replied, "A long island."

He chuckled. "You really think you can hold your liquor, don't you?"

"Trust me," she returned, "I'm better than you know."

Two drinks down and he was thinking she was right. They were laughing at a case from a few years before, how a minor detail had derailed them for days and thrown their profile completely off. "You were soooo wrong," she told him. "I thought for sure you were going to give it up. But no, you just blazed right through, acting as though everyone else was nuts and you had known the whole time." They both laughed.

"Well," he grinned, drinking his beer, "I don't give up easily. And I don't like to be backed into a corner. Comes from when I was a kid, I guess."

"Doesn't everything?" she replied, sipping the bottom of her glass. She smiled. "Until you learn new patterns, you stick with the old ones. Through thick and thin, like best of friends." She motioned to the waitress for another.

"Are you sure about that?" he asked her. "Those are pretty heavy hitters."

"Eh, I'm not planning to drive. I think I'll be okay. Nothing big planned for tomorrow anyway."

He knew that was true. "How'd it go with Lydia today?"

She smiled. "I'm making progress. You should see me...you'd be so proud...I'm just chugging along, like the little engine that could."

Bobby laughed. "Then you should be back to work, full status, pretty soon, huh?"

"Probably." She twirled the straw in her drink. "After I get settled in my new place, maybe."

Neither of them spoke. The waitress brought the long island iced tea and took the old glass away. He took another sip of his beer, wanting to ask all sorts of things, but not knowing how.

Finally, he said, "Just let me know how I can help. I'll do whatever I can."

She was watching her drink, smiling awkwardly. "You don't want me to go. Neither do I. That's why I have to. If I don't, I never will...and I have to."

He knew the beer was affecting his thinking, but he understood what she was saying. "I understand," he told her. Then suddenly, he grabbed her hand, surprising even himself. "I just need you to understand--to know."

She looked up at him, surprised.

"I'm no good at this. I'm a hell of a lot older than you and I still suck at this relationship stuff. You're one of my goddamn best friends in this world and I can't say it and I won't say it while I'm here, drinking, because you deserve to hear it when we're both sober." The words were tumbling out of his mouth. He found himself thinking he might be sorry later, but then he doubted it, because it was all truth. "I don't want to lose our friendship. No matter where you live."

She pulled her hand away from him and sat back against the seat. "Is that what we have, Goren? I'm your goddamn best friend?"

He felt as though she had struck him, forcing him to turn and face the truth, regardless of how scary it was. Face it or lose her.

"No," he replied. "But do you really want me to say it while we're both drunk? Do you really want to see what follows when we're like this?"

She regarded him quietly for a moment. "I know you love me," she finally said, softly. "And I'm praying that doesn't change when I leave, because I don't want it to." She stared into the glass. "It's not like I've been lucky enough to have this experience tons of times. Leaving is the scariest thing I could do because it means I have to trust both of us to keep this going."

He reached for her hand again, and this time she gave it. "I won't say it now," he said to her. "Because you deserve better. But what I will say is that I have no intention of going anywhere away from you. I want to laugh with you, go to movies with you, profile with you, sing with you. I want to kiss you again, hold you." He swallowed, lowered his voice. "I want...I want to make love to you. When it's time. What I don't want to do is leave."

She saw his eyes well with tears and felt her own. "Don't worry," she assuaged him. "I want the same things. I can't imagine my life without you in it." She laughed softly. "Damn alcohol. Makes people get all emotional."

"Like that's bad," he replied, then finished his beer.

They walked home after, hand in hand, laughing about the guy who rode past them on his scooter and the misspelled graffiti on a nearby building. Once they got inside, she turned to him.

"You can sleep in the bedroom again if you want." The alcohol had her buzzed and she could think of nothing she wanted more than to curl up against his warm body. That and maybe a few other things that would probably heat up the room.

He shook a finger at her and smiled, that wry smile he nearly always saved for suspects. As though she were trying to trick him, and he had caught on just in time. "Not a good idea tonight," he replied.

She reached out and grabbed his finger. "Then at least kiss me goodnight."

He knew better, knew they both should be in different rooms, if not different houses. His attraction to her was intense and he was done fighting it. He didn't want to anymore.

"Bad idea," he repeated, as he pulled her against him. "This is a bad idea."

She smiled at him, sweetly, seductively. "Then I'll kiss you...and you won't have to worry about a thing." She reached up and ran her hands through his hair and he closed his eyes as she brought her hands down to the sides of his face, by his ears, and pulled him down to her. "Trust me," she breathed, and she heard a soft moan escape from him.

She pressed her lips firmly to his, pulling him closer, running her tongue against his teeth. She tasted the beer, the cigarettes he had smoked, and after a moment felt his arms wrap around her body, holding her hips against his, then running up her back. His fingertips gently grazed her back repeatedly, then settled once more on her hips, this time stroking each side in rhythm with their breathing. She reached one arm under his, clutching him closer, tasting him, teasing his tongue. She heard his breath hitch,and pressed her body closer to his as she leaned up to his ear, running her tongue over the outer shell. She could feel him growing harder against her leg, and for a moment, fantasized about taking this so very much farther.

Unfair. This was so brutally unfair to him, she realized. Here she was, teasing him, wanting him, but knowing she wasn't ready or able to follow through. Knowing he would never let it happen, even with the alcohol running through their systems and the fantasy that they could live like this, with no consequence.

She pulled back from him and he let her go, but kept his eyes closed for a moment. When he opened them, she squeezed his hand. "I'm really sorry," she said. "I shouldn't have done that."

He smiled at her as much as he could, willing himself to regain control over his body and forget all of the thoughts that had been roaring through his brain. "I'll see you in the morning," he said.

"Okay," she replied. She stopped at the bedroom door and turned around again. "Bobby," she said as sincerely as she could muster, "I really am sorry. I didn't mean to...do that. Not yet, anyway."

He looked at her and thought of how desperately he wanted to join her in his bed, to pleasure her all night, to be joined with her physically and emotionally. He cleared his throat. "Don't worry about it, Ness. Sleep tight."

He watched her close the door and settled down on the couch. She was right. The best place for her was somewhere away from here, so they could slow it down. It was best for her. He never wanted to look back at any bit of this with regret. And God help him, he wouldn't.
*****************************************

"No,no,no! By the west window, I said!" Ava pointed in the opposite direction of the mover's box. "This one goes by that window. And make sure you get them in the rooms as they're labeled."

The mover sighed and took off his ball cap. Wiping his forehead with it, he said, "Lady, this stuff is labeled according to the last place, not this one. I ain't no mind reader." Under his breath, he mumbled, "And I ain't no interior decorator neither."

Ava huffed. She was annoyed and this...this....person...wasn't helping. "You don't have to be either, sweetie," she grumbled, loud enough for him to hear. "You just have to be smart enough to follow directions."

A second mover appeared in the doorway with a box labeled STUDIO and she directed him to the back wing of the condo.

Vanessa followed him in with her guitar, and glanced at Ava. "I should've figured you'd be here this early. Don't you have a kid to take care of?"

"And a husband to watch him," Ava replied, then turned her attention to another mover. "Hey! Be careful with that armoire! It's from Italy, for the love of God! It goes in the master!" She fell in step with her sister. "You realize you can't just trust any old Joe to move this stuff, Ness...I've seen plenty of jobs where these people cause thousands of dollars worth of damage. You need to be supervising."

Vanessa smiled sweetly. "Isn't that why you're here?"

Ava frowned. "Very funny, Nessie. Now where's your white knight? Shouldn't he be here helping you?"

"Gawd, Ava," Vanessa whined. "Is this a move or a family get-together? He'll get here when he gets here. He was loading up some of my stuff."

Ava stepped back in mock surprise. "He has a car?"

"Yes," Vanessa replied, smiling to herself. "A mustang. Classic too."

"Well," Ava responded, running her hand across the studio keyboard, "Too bad David isn't here. I'm sure the boys would have loads to talk about." Vanessa knew her brother in law loved classic cars almost as much as Ava abhorred them. David had once owned a camaro, but Ava had talked him into selling it, complaining it took too much of his time. Vanessa secretly thought Ava took too much of his time.

"Don't worry. I'm sure Goren won't feel the need to discuss it with you if you don't bring it up." Vanessa tugged one of the boxes through the doorway. "And be nice, Ava. I don't want you picking on him just because you can."

Now Ava stood, examining her polished nails. "What's his name, did you say?"

"Bobby." Vanessa huffed, pulling the tape forcefully off of a box. "Bobby Goren. He's a detective."

"Got it." Ava rubbed some imaginary dust off her fingernail, then turned to head back to the main area of the condo. "I'll let you know when your lover arrives."

"Shut up," Vanessa mumbled under her breath, pulling out her discs and placing them in holders. She had a lot of shit. God, she'd be glad when this day was over.

Ava wandered through the boxes, checking labels and directing movers to the appropriate rooms. Damn movers. She still couldn't figure out why Vanessa had decided to go with this particular moving company when she had a perfectly good one an hour away. People in the city were snots, she figured, and wanted to stick with their own. Realizing she had just mentally called her older sister a snot, she felt a twinge of guilt, but then justified the label as she watched yet another mover nearly trip into the place with a decorative table from Spain. Yep, she thought, snots.

It was warm in the condo, so she opened the bay windows and looked out over the park. The view was definitely to die for. Despite the fact that this place had so much space, it would be perfect for Vanessa if she ever settled down with someone and had a family. Room for kids. Central Park right below their window.

"Hi." A voice interrupted her thought process. "You must be Ava."

He stepped forward, hand out, ready to shake hers. Was he kidding? This guy?

She held out her hand daintily. "Yes," she replied, "I'm Ava. Ava Winters. And you?"

Bobby smiled at her. Vanessa had captured her to a T in all her descriptions. He had somehow known she'd be dressed in the white pantsuit. Blonde. And looking very much like her sister, just...well, more refined...

"Goren. Bobby Goren," he said as they shook hands. Her handshake was delicate, as though she were trying to convince him of her ladylike status. "I'm a friend of your sister's. It's nice to meet you."

"Yes." Ava pulled her hand back and crossed her arms. She couldn't believe this guy was him. For a second she thought Vanessa was using again. What did they give her in that hospital anyway? "I've heard she's been staying with you. Thank you for helping to take care of her." Looking past him, she motioned to the mover. "The second bedroom on the left," she called, as though the box somehow hampered the poor man's hearing. He shook his head and proceeded down the hallway.

Bobby cleared his throat. "Well, she's a good friend, and I'm happy to help out wherever I can." He scanned the room, then joked, "Has she gotten lost in here?"

Ava continued to smile at him, but it was a look he had seen before. Once, many years ago, when he had broken up with a lover, she had invited him to come by and pick up his leftover clothes. When she opened the door--half naked, with one of his coworkers beside her--he got the message. He had never forgotten what she was wearing. It was the same smile Ava was sporting at him now.

"She's back toward the studio," Ava motioned toward the far end of the condo. Moving toward him, still smiling, she said, "I was just hoping we could get to know each other a little more."

He didn't like the feeling of this. Ava looked like he had shark bait written on his forehead, and she was jonesing for some deep sea action. Crossing his own arms, he said, "Sure...so what did you have in mind?"

"Well." She perched herself on the corner of a large box. "How are you going to adjust to being alone again? Are you looking forward to it?"

He flexed the balls of his feet. He tended to do that in nervous situations, and Ava was definitely testing his nerves. "I'm pretty sure I'll do fine. So will Vanessa. It's good, though, that we have such a close friendship-" he stressed the word"-that we'll be seeing each other quite frequently, even when she's not at work."

Who was he kidding? Ava thought he had to be the biggest idiot in the world. Had he looked in the mirror lately? He had to be at least old enough to be Vanessa's father. And he just reeked of cop. The hair, the smirk, the whole picture. Vanessa must've hit her head on that coffee table harder than anyone realized.

"Well, I'm glad that Vanessa called me," Ava said sweetly. "You know, that's what family is for. To take care of one another. That's why I'm here. But I did want to thank you for all you have done for Vanessa up to this point." She sighed, still looking at him. He sensed she was moving in for the kill. "We can handle it now, though. Although I'm sure she appreciates your...friendship." Ava stressed the word herself, feeling it slip from her mouth like venom. Unless he was completely stupid, he would have gotten her message.

Bobby stood for a moment, watching Ava's brittle smile. She was, indeed, a beautiful woman. In some ways moreso than her sister. Her words had stung with the staccato she had embedded them with. Suddenly he realized he was looking at the anti-Vanessa. He laughed.

Ava's smile turned quizzical. "Maybe you didn't understand me," she repeated. "We're all good here and thank you for your help."

Still laughing, Bobby turned to face her. "Oh honey," he chuckled, "I didn't come to help you. I came for your sister. And I don't need to explain myself. Do you really think I give a damn what you think of me?"

Ava's face dropped for a moment before she regained her composure. "Actually, if you were a good man, I would think you would care very much what I thought of you. You would want my sister to be happy, which would mean you would want her family to like you." She paused. "I've been to your place," she said, low. "I've seen how you live. I see who you are, detective. And you're not my sister's kind."

Their eyes locked, steely. His smile had disappeared. He hadn't expected her to be this direct, but since she was...

"You wouldn't know what made your sister happy if it spat in your face."

He could see the flush coming over her, the anger, and he immediately regretted the words. Wishing desperately to retract them. What would Vanessa think, if he had ruined this tenuous relationship between her and her sister?

Ava stood close to him. She barely reached his shoulder, but her anger was mighty. He could feel it. He knew Vanessa carried the same around inside her, but had only been apt to show it on rare occasions. He tried not to flinch in the presence of her tiny figure. She poked him in the chest.

"You," she began, "are too old for my sister. You've got to be at least forty. And I'm willing to bet you aren't cultured in the slightest. You probably think that Amsterdam relates to porn and that the Odyssey was a trip. You are too tall and too normal looking. You're weird. I've seen your apartment. You own your own library. And I know you have a...reputation...in the NYPD. I already checked."

He took a breath but didn't move away. "Okay," he replied. "Let's say you're right. Right about all of it. I'm forty-three and your sister is thirty. I am weird. I'm tall and normal looking. I have my own library, and a reputation. But I do know that there's more to Amsterdam than porn, and I read The Odyssey in seventh grade." He paused. "My mom was a librarian."

Ava let out a hmph.

"Anyway, I still care deeply for your sister. And she cares about me. And I would do anything--including calling you to the carpet for being a nasty bitch--to protect her."

Ava stepped back. "Did you just call me a bitch?"

He sighed. "Yeah. A nasty one."

She sat back on the edge of the moving box. "Even my husband doesn't call me that. Although he might think it sometimes." She picked at her fingernail. "Okay, he probably thinks it a lot."

"Well, I doubt it," Goren replied. "He's uh...married to you...and you have a child together..."

"Eh," she shrugged. "I am a nasty bitch."

He stood there, not sure what to say.

Finally, Ava looked at him. "All right, big shot," she said. "Do your thing, work your mojo. But the first time she calls me to cry on my shoulder about you, just know I'll have your nuts in a vice."

He sighed again. "Don't worry. She'd cut 'em off before you had a chance."
******************************************

"Okay," Vanessa said, sitting down on the floor next to him. "So I'm thinking it will only take me two or three months to unpack." She passed him a paper plate and opened the pizza box. "After that, I guess I'll have to have everyone over for some sort of thank you party."

He passed her a beer. "Well, that should be loads of fun. Your sister will love being surrounded by cops."

Vanessa laughed. It had been a long day, and every cop in the squad had shown up at some point to bring in a box or try to sort out where everything went. Eames had organized half of her kitchen, which was completely amazing to her. That woman was a total workhorse.

Ava had stayed until the end, when the movers finally finished, and promised to return the next day to start unpacking. Vanessa had tried to assure her that wasn't necessary, but Ava was insistent, and after shooting a warning look at Goren, had announced for Vanessa to be prepared for her arrival around two p.m.--after church.

"I talked with your sister today," he said, as though on cue. "She's an interesting woman."

Vanessa took a bite of her pizza. "So that's what you'd call that conversation?"

He froze for a second,then continued to pick the green pepper off his pizza. "You heard it?"

"Did you think I wouldn't?"

"I thought you were in the back." He was trying to recollect everything he said. He knew he had said a great deal that he wasn't particularly proud of, although he felt he had spoken honestly.

Vanessa put her pizza down. "So," she said, matter-of-factly. "Where's the mojo?"

"What?"

"You know, the mojo you're supposed to be working on me. Where is it?"

He looked at her, startled for a second, unsure how to read her tone. But she was smiling, teasing him. He smiled too, and put his pizza down. He took the beer out of her hand. "There's something I owe you...but it's not mojo."

"What's that?" She was curious. With all hands free, she could only wonder where this might be going. Her heart began to beat faster. It hadn't escaped her that the two times they had kissed, she had started it. Granted, he had seemed a very willing participant, but her mind would rest much easier if he seemed to be on board as much as she was.

He leaned toward her, tilting her head up toward his. His smile was soft, and his eyelids lowered a bit. She heard a sigh escape from him. "I love you."

She knew how hard it was for him to utter. Knew he never said those words to anyone, for any reason, other than his mom. She took great delight in hearing it, though, and after a moment, whispered excitedly to him, "Say it again!"

Now he laughed. He sat back and looked at her, then said with as much sincerity as he felt, "I love you. I love you, Vanessa. I'll say it as many times as you want me to. I love you."

She grinned, pulled the crust off her pizza slice, and tossed it on the plate. "I knew you loved me. But it turns me on when you say it."

He was watching her, eyes still dreamy, mouth still in a soft smile. "Stop eating that damn pizza so I can kiss you," he finally said.

Two fantasies in one night. She should move more often.

He reached behind her neck with his hand and drew her in until their foreheads touched. He was breathing in her oxygen, then caressing her bottom lip with his own. Soft sucks and gentle nibbles. She felt heady.

His mouth covered hers entirely then, pulling her closer, deepening their kiss with tongues and tasting and hands sliding up and down her back. In the recesses of her mind, she realized that there was a part of her that was aching to have him, all naked and lovely, right there on the floor next to the pizza box.

But as quickly as it had sizzled, his kiss turned sweet, moving to her jaw, then her temple. He paused, softly breathing in her scent again. "I love you," he whispered, and she knew in her gut that this moment would bind them together more tightly than any sexual act could.

She stayed close to him as he continued to stroke her back, touch her hair, kiss her face. Her forehead. Both eyelids. Her nose, then finally a sweet, chaste kiss on her lips again. When he pulled back, he smiled. "I told you that you deserved this sober. I hope you think it was worth the wait." He twisted one finger into her hair as he let her go, then watched the curl cascade down away from his hand.

"Goren." Her voice was soft. "I think everything with you is worth the wait. I love you too."

They both smiled at each other, a tad awkwardly, before she picked up her slice of pizza again and he took a sip of his beer. After several minutes, he said, "You heard the whole thing, huh?"

She swung back her beer for a moment, then smiled. "The whole damn thing." Her smile turned into a grin. "It was kind of entertaining, really. I've never had a guy stand up for me with my sister before."

"Hmph." He grabbed another piece of pizza. "I don't think she's a bad kid...she's just full of herself is all. And she doesn't particularly care for cops."

Vanessa laughed. "Yeah...you could say that. Fortunately she's already married to someone who isn't in law enforcement. So it's a nonissue."

They finished off the pizza and a couple more beers, chatting about the day, their coworkers, and Ava. After his third beer, he asked her where she was going to sleep.

She smiled. "In my bed. In my bedroom. Weird, though...I haven't slept there in four months."

Bruce was curled up by them, occasionally snoring. Bobby watched her stroke his side to settle him down. Suddenly he could feel the silence in his own apartment, and it was deafening.

"Okay," he said slowly. He knew it was time but didn't want it to be. He mentally scolded himself for being clingy. This was so not him. He was always the aloof one in a relationship. Wanting to stay with her was unnerving to him. After a moment, he added, "Do you need anything tonight? I don't mind running to the store-"

She was watching him, observing. He felt she could see it...this delay of the inevitable that made him feel, at the very least, pathetic. He was trying to argue with himself that she might need him, his presence, his comfort, although that was clearly not the case. Dammit. Damn damn damn.

"I was wondering," she said, as she stood up, "if you would be willing to cook tomorrow night. Alex put a lot of my kitchen together but it's still basically empty. Besides, a few hours with Ava is all I can commit to."

He smiled as he stood up next to her. God, she was trying her best to subtly reassure him. He figured he'd go ahead and let her do it. "Okay," he replied, "if you're up for Italian. And if you keep in mind that dessert at my house is best served cold at the table."

She laughed. "Angie's a nut," she said, then squeezed his hand. "Some people's taste buds are just all out of whack."

He shook his head. "Maybe. What time?"

"Five," she responded quickly. "I'll be there at five. We can eat whenever you want...it's not like I'm in a hurry."

He tousled her hair, then kissed her forehead again. "Sleep tight, Ness. Call if you need me."

She stood in the doorway, watching him walk down the hall to the elevator. "Don't worry," she called to him. "I will."

She closed the door and locked it, feeling the emptiness in the condo settle upon her. She already missed him.

"Come on, Bruce...time for bed." It would take time, but she would settle back in. They both would.

*******************************************

Five o' clock came and went. She wasn't there, and he was starting to get restless.

He hadn't slept well the night before. It reminded him of his life before her, the one where he spent most nights reading or reviewing cases, or occasionally watching late night crime shows and critiquing the cops. It seemed every time he got comfortable, sleepy even, she crossed his mind. What if she was afraid? What if that lunatic Forrester had figured out where she was? What if she were in the middle of a nightmare?

After he had spent a good amount of time thinking of everything that could be going wrong at her place, he started to think about their evening together. Their kiss. How it had started so incredibly hot, and he had toned it down just as quickly. He didn't know why he had done that. He had let his mind wander, then, to what might have happened if he had chosen to let things continue. He was pretty sure that she knew how attracted he was to her...in fact, she had made it clear she felt the same way about him. But something made him hold back. He knew it was fear. Fear of pushing too soon, fear of regret. He wanted her to see him as something other than the stereotypical men she had been with...as someone who saw her has an individual, a person, and as more than a sexual partner. He didn't want her to feel taken advantage of.

So he had lain there in his bed, thinking about the month she had occupied it, having what he considered rather sordid thoughts and fantasies about her and mentally chastising himself. Trying to will himself to ignore the coconut-scented hair, the soft breasts that had pressed against him a handful of times. The hips and ass and legs that he had scoped out more than he cared to admit right now. And what he wanted to do with all of her. The want was the worst of it. The want that never seemed to die down, to leave him at peace, to let him forget about her for a bit. It was too embedded in who he was. Ironic considering his desire for her to recognize the he saw her in the whole, not just as a bed partner.

Once it was a reasonable hour, he had hit the shower and dressed, ready to head out of the city to visit his mother. She would be surprised to see him so early, but he hoped it would be a good surprise. At the very least, it would take his mind off of the things he shouldn't be thinking about and focus it on the things he should--like his responsibilities with his mom.

The visit had been pleasant enough. His mother's new medication seemed to be working much more effectively, and she was able to sustain a comfortable, relaxing conversation for most of the time he was there. They ate lunch together in the cafeteria, laughing about old times and old friends. He played gin with her before he left, and she still seemed as sharp as ever.

As he grabbed his jacket to go, he leaned over to give her a kiss on the cheek. She kissed him back, then held his face for a minute. "When you feel comfortable," she began, "you should bring her with you."

He had started to protest, but she interrupted. "I may be schizophrenic, Bobby, but I'm not blind. I want to meet this girl."

So much for compartmentalization. Even his mother could tell. He had stopped by the store on the way home, picking up a bottle of wine and ingredients for a salad, then made it back by 4:30. He debated about changing his clothes. It struck him as odd that he would even think of that with her, seeing as she had lived there until yesterday. She knew how he dressed. It seemed silly to change, but it was something he would have done for any other woman. Instead, he decided to do a quick pick-up through the apartment. At least she could see he hadn't turned into a slob overnight.

At five fifteen, he sat down on the couch and pulled out a magazine. Some weird interior decorating thing Ava must have given her. She left it behind. He flipped, not really looking, but thinking about her and this night. He knew in the back of his mind that she had proposed this to make things easier on him. And that made him uneasy. He didn't like that she knew how difficult this was.

He heard the key in the lock and put the magazine down. Almost as quickly, he realized he would look as though he were staring at the door just waiting for her, screaming of desperation. He nearly picked it back up, but she was in the apartment, a bouquet of flowers and a bag from the bakery down the street in her hands.

"Hey," she huffed, passing the bakery bag off to him. "I thought I would bring something, but apparently Lina's is busier at this time of day than I anticipated."

"Yeah, it's busy most times. She's pretty amazing." He put the bag on the counter and began to relax. "What did you get?"

"For you? Some flowers. You got a vase around here?" She cracked a smile. "Surely one of those women from your past have provided you with one."

He made a face at her. "Very funny. I have one that used to be my mom's." He rummaged under the sink and returned with a vintage, cut glass vase. "Will this work?"

She smiled. "I think so." She filled the vase with water and a spoonful of sugar, then cut the flowers on a diagonal and placed them inside. "There," she declared. "Flowers to brighten up your place." She carried the vase to the table. "Over here?"

"Uh, yeah...that's great," he said, watching her carefully. She acted as though she belonged here, as though she had never left. It was as though she was unconsciously feeding his fantasy. "So...before Lina's...what did you do today?"

"Ugh," she groaned. "Unpacking. And more unpacking. And then Ava came over and lectured my while I continued to unpack. Trust me, I've been looking forward to your spaghetti all day!" She sat in the kitchen chair, watching him at the counter. "How about you?"

"Saw my mom. We had a good visit. Her meds have settled her down quite a bit and she seems to be doing much better."

She smiled at him. "That's great, Bobby."

They both were watching each other awkwardly. It reminded him of when she was in the hospital, and he had made the crack about going through so many styrofoam cups in a week. The giant pink elephant in the room. He wanted her. It grew every day, had been growing for months, and it was incredibly difficult for him to ignore. He couldn't remember a time where he had ever felt this strongly toward another woman. Here she was, sitting in front of him, and all he could think about had absolutely nothing to do with the spaghetti dinner he had promised her.

He didn't realized he had exhaled so heavily until she said, "What's on your mind?"

He leaned back against the counter and debated telling her the truth. In a millisecond, every conversation they had ever had about honesty flooded his brain. He didn't want to do this if it wasn't going to be honest between them. "You," he admitted.

He had expected her to smile, that knowing smile of hers, with a little flirtation thrown in; that she would make a joke to lighten the mood, perhaps kiss him gently and then they would make the salad. But instead, she stood up and rested herself against his kitchen table.

Her eyes met his but she didn't move. After several moments, she said quietly, "It's time, isn't it?"

He knew. Knew what she meant, but he didn't know the answer. "I don't know," he replied softly. "But I hated last night." After a moment, he added, "And I hate that I hated it."

She nodded. Her night had sucked too.

He continued, "I love you. I miss you. I want you." He stopped, then awkwardly motioned to the countertop. "I have no appetite for this. I'm sorry--"

She stepped toward him, then hesitated. Scared but so filled with anticipation. Almost breathless. "What about for me..."

He reached down, touched her hair. "I want to...not rush you...be there...it's all so damn confusing." He sighed.

"Bobby." She didn't touch him but looked at his eyes. Once they were focused on hers, she spoke. "What if I told you I want this. Now. Tonight. And I'm sure."

He felt his heart drop into his feet. His hand reached out again, tucked her hair behind her ear. "We can't go back from this," he whispered, afraid of her response but desperately needing to know she had thought it through.

She shook her head. "Bobby...Bobby..." she murmured. "I don't want to escape from a minute with you. And I don't want to lose a minute more."

Her eyes were focused on his, then she turned around quietly, heading to his bedroom. After a second of self-flagellation mixed with awe, he followed her.

*********************************************
The room was semi-dark in the twilight.

Bobby felt the blood rushing through his body, intense and heavy. She was so beautiful, he thought, watching her turn back the covers to his bed.

He tried to think back to the first time he had seen her, the first day they met, and if he had found her this attractive then. He knew he had flirted with her, knew he thought she was pretty. Back then, sex had been for fun; all flirty and exciting and one-night stands with attractive women who felt the same about him.

But this was different. This was deep and powerful and unlike all of the flings that had made up his sex life over the last several years. He knew that they could go days, weeks, years never touching and for some reason he would still be drawn back here. She saw something in him, knew him, in a way he couldn't even communicate himself. It was eerily comforting, like a strange homecoming of sorts. Like he had always belonged here.

He knew many women at work found him attractive enough to flirt with but most would never dream of caring for him past that. They considered him dangerous; he was the kind of man who had the potential for great sex with no strings attached. Until the last few months he had thought of himself like that as well. But everything had changed that night with Forrester. From the night he had walked into her apartment, on call, steeling himself to find her dead body, everything had changed. When he saw her, wiped her face, caught the fleeting fear and shame in her eyes, he couldn't let go. He didn't know why before, but now he realized her helplessness had echoed his own, what he saw and felt and lived most of his life. He couldn't imagine letting her go with one night. He was in too deep. He loved her. Deeply. Insanely. And he wanted it to continue to grow. He suddenly had a vision of a garden he had seen once, where the separate trees were pruned to lean and intertwine together. Life as a gardener, he thought ironically.

She was sitting on the bed, watching him, smiling self-consciously. He sat down next to her.

"I'm pretty rusty," she said, with an awkward laugh. "You know, five years and all."

He half smiled, reached over to touch her hair. "Well, it's not like I've been practicing regularly or anything," he admitted. He ran his fingers over her hand, thinking of all the times previously she had trusted him to touch her. Times when nobody else would. He felt a sudden protectiveness, a need to take the pressure off, to be sure that she wanted this as much as she claimed. "I love you. Anything you want or don't want--it's fine with me. We can make love or we can lay here and watch food network. I can hold you or we can kiss or we can play monopoly...it doesn't matter to me at all...so long as I'm with you."

He expected her to at least consider his words, but her reply was immediate. "I want to make love with you. Tonight. Right here. I love you, Goren. I love you and I know you love me. I don't want to think about the past or whatever has happened. When I think about you right now my thoughts go to this. To sex, to intimacy, to being so very close to you. I'm guessing yours do too." She sighed softly, glancing down at her own hands playing with his shirt buttons. " You're so beautiful to me." If it's something we both want, then I think we should commit to this."

His instinct was to push her to the bed, to pull her shirt off and taste her, touch her with the passion that was swimming through his head. But he didn't. Instead, he whispered, "I want to commit. To this. To you." He ran his hands over her shoulders, down her arms. "I don't want it any other way."

She smiled at him, then ran her fingers along the bottom of his shirt. Slowly, she began to unbutton his buttons, one at a time. He sat patiently, watching her, until she was done. He shrugged the shirt off, and she reached for the bottom of his tee and pulled it up, over his head.

She had seen him without his shirt a couple of times before, in passing, as he had been going to get dressed or climbing into the shower. He had always struck her as attractive. She knew he exercised and his body showed it, a mix of toned muscle and the beginning signs of aging. He was fascinating to her, the feel of his chest muscles underneath the smattering of brown and gray hair. It was hard to tell which was more appealing--the thrill of touching him or the secret excitement of having his bare chest so close to her. She could feel his heart beating as he stood still, watching her. She ran her hands down his chest, over his soft abdomen to his hips, hooking her fingers in his belt loops. He was so insanely beautiful. An average looking guy who was no longer average to her. She could smell his cologne, his soap, his scent and she only wanted to get closer. She ran her hands up to his face, leaning in to kiss him, and felt adrenaline rush through her when his mouth opened to her tongue, encouraging her to taste him.

Her lips touched his sensually, softly, but it wasn't enough for him. He was hungry for her, and pulled her body closer, hands sliding up her front, lingering on the breasts he had never allowed himself to touch before now. Soft and sweet in his hands. They slipped under her shirt, caressing her over her bra, before pulling quickly at the hem to get it over her head and toss it to the side. He pulled his mouth away from hers for a moment, gasping for air, leaning his forehead against hers as he reached down reverently and ran his fingers over her bra, tracing her breasts, before slipping his fingers behind her and unhooking her bra. She caught it before it could slide down and hesitated. He sat back from her, catching his breath, trying to rid himself of the want aching through him. She hadn't looked at him, and he had the sudden feeling that this night was going to end very differently than he had imagined.

Her breath caught in her throat, and she whispered, "I'm sorry."

"No," he whispered. "Just talk to me. Tell me what it is...tell me what I can do."

She was silent, unmoving, and he felt horrifically responsible for this moment. "Ness," he whispered. "I can manage anything...just tell me what I did."

She shook her head. "It's not you." Her voice was raspy, trying desperately to sound calm and rational. "I was dressed like this...he ripped my damn tee shirt. Ripped the damn thing." Her voice grew stronger, almost angry, and he was unsure how to digest this current turn of events. "My favorite one. I'd had it for forever and he just ripped it." She was still clutching her bra to her chest. "I didn't wear a bra that night. I was trying to send a message. I guess I was damn successful, wasn't I?"

He shook his head. "You know this was about power. It had nothing to do with what you did or didn't wear."

She stood up and walked away from him. He felt like a fool, sitting there half-dressed with a raging hard-on, having this conversation with her. "Vanessa-" he stood, but before he could move toward her, she discarded the bra and turned to face him.

He stood frozen, looking at her, every fantasy he'd had over the last few months flitting through his addled brain. She unbuttoned and unzipped her jeans and stepped out of them. He guessed he was staring at her, because she said suddenly, "I don't want you to undress me. I'll do it myself."

He didn't understand. He had figured this was over, done for the night, and he was willing to make peace with that fact. But now, here she was, standing in front of him nearly nude. And God, she was more beautiful than he had ever imagined.

She took a step toward him. "Do you still want to?"

Hell yes, he wanted to. Could she not see? Suddenly he realized they were standing in the shadows of near-darkness. Well then, she probably couldn't.

She reached forward, touched his abdomen with her hand, then slid it down until it settled over his erection. The room was incredibly still, silent; he could hear her breathing. He didn't dare move.

"Can I take them off?" her voice was soft, sweeter now, as though she had made peace with the inner demon she had been wrestling with. As though she had returned to him, to this moment, as they were before.

"Yes," he whispered, and she slid his pants down, then his boxers, before settling her hands back on his chest. She ran them down over his body, soft and gentle, before leaning forward and up to kiss the stubble along his jaw. After several more moments he sat on the edge of the bed, and she slid into his lap, continuing to kiss him across his face, over his neck.

She loved him. She loved everything about him, from his laugh to his eyes to his quirky sense of humor. She wanted this; every pore of her body ached for him. As she felt his erection pressing against her, thoughts of Forrester tried to interrupt again, to demand attention and steal this moment from her. It made her angry and she pulled back from Bobby, searching for his eyes in the darkness.

She caught them, large and dark and deep, before reaching for his hands and leading them to her breasts. He didn't speak but kept touching her, stroking her, needing her to want him, want this. After a long moment, he whispered, "I want to kiss you."

She touched his hair as he lowered his head and encircled one of her nipples into his mouth. He heard the hitch in her breath and felt her press her body more closely to his. Slowly he ran his hands over her back. He understood now. She needed to control this, to make the rules. He would let her.

When she whispered to him to stop, he let her go. She stood up from him and slid out of her panties. He could see her silhouette now in the darkness, standing by the nightstand. "Where do you keep them?" she asked softly, and it took him a minute to understand what she was asking.

"Top drawer in the chest, left side."

She reached into the drawer and found the condom box, removing one and returning to the bed. She sat next to him and her hand settled gently on him, before asking, "How should we do this?"

He reached up to her hair. "However you want to," he responded softly.

She handed him the condom. "You're probably better at it than me at this point," she admitted.

He felt himself smile wryly as he slipped the condom on. "Do you...how..."

She slid onto the bed, head on the pillow, and pulled him to her. "I love you," he whispered, his body restlessly shifting against her. Hesitantly, he slid his hands up and down her body, then his tongue, taking in the softness of her skin, her scent of coconut and fruit and arousal, the scars that Forrester left. "Beth," he whispered, "you're perfect."

Suddenly she laughed softly. "Did you forget who you're with?"

He smiled. "Your middle name. Elizabeth. Beth. I want to call you that. Just you and me." He kissed her belly softly, swirled shapes with his tongue. "Is that okay? Just us?"

She lost her breath for a moment as she realized he had thought about this. Really thought about it. Fantasized about her, wanting a special name for her, just for him. "Yes."

He allowed his hand to slide over her belly, down her abdomen, before feeling hers cover his own and lead him gently downward. He slipped one finger inside her, making lazy circles, and he allowed his senses to become overloaded with her.

She closed her eyes and found herself drifting through waves of feeling, arousal and desire hand in hand. He had entangled a leg between hers, his body pressed close. She could feel his erection against her hip and turned to stroke him, to kiss his lips.

And she knew. Knew she would not allow Forrester to steal this from her, from them. "Bobby," she whispered. "It's okay. It's all okay."

He moaned in her mouth softly, murmuring her name, before repositioning her underneath him. His hand slipped out from between them. He wanted this, more than anything. His mind was a mix of heady arousal and need. Grasping at reality for just a moment, his lips caressed hers. "Are you sure...ready..."

She didn't speak, but kissed him softly, sliding her knees to either side of his hips. She felt him enter her gently, and heard herself groan into the kiss. He froze, uncertain, until she slowly lifted her hips toward him. Bobby buried his face in her neck and slipped in further.

She cradled him, wrapping her entire body around his large one, feeling him rock rhythmically against her until she couldn't hold back any more. Her hands ran over his back, hips rocked, lips caressed his ear, his neck, his face. It didn't take long before she heard herself crying out to him, his name and God's and begging please, please, as he brought her crashing forward, more intensely than she had ever imagined.

Her breath was ragged as she stayed wrapped around him, his thrusting more erratic and quick until a moment later she heard him. "Beth." One word as he arched for several seconds, then fell against her, warm and sweaty and so, so beautiful.

She stroked his hair and didn't move. She could hear him trying desperately to quell his breathing. She didn't want him to move. For the first time in forever, she felt cherished. And she didn't want the feeling to go away.

******************************************************

"I swear I didn't plan this." His voice was soft. They were lying next to one another, bodies barely separated. "I never intended to get you to sleep with me. At least not tonight."

She laughed softly. "I'm disappointed. I thought for sure you'd have some big plan for this by now."

He wasn't sure how to take that at first. "You believed me when I said I wasn't trying to bait you..."

She reached over and pressed a finger to his lips again. "Yes," she whispered. "And I also believed you when you said you love me. And I still do"

He reached out, stroked her arm, then slid his hand down to rest on her hip. "You have a beautiful body."

She felt uncomfortable suddenly, vulnerable. Trying to blow it off, she responded, "If you say so, then okay...I used to be fifteen pounds lighter. My boobs were perkier and I didn't have the scars."

He smiled. "I like your boobs just how they are. And the fifteen pounds looks good on you." He paused for a moment, then said, "The scars are part of who you are. They tell your story."

She hadn't thought about it like that. Actually, she spent most of her time trying to avoid seeing them. "I don't like to look at them."

He touched her face with a finger. "You worked so hard to keep him out of here, didn't you?"

She felt the tears rise and leaned against him. "You have no idea."

He wrapped his arm protectively around her. "You're in control here," he whispered, kissing the side of her face softly.

They lay quietly for several minutes.

"I have scars everywhere," he said suddenly. "Army, academy, working on the street, in narcotics." After a minute, and perhaps a bit self-consciously, he asked, "Did you notice?"

She leaned forward and kissed him. "I think you're incredibly beautiful," she said genuinely, fighting against the urge to press her body to his for a repeat performance.

He pulled her closer anyway and chuckled. "Beautiful," he mused. "That's not something I've heard before."

"Hmm," she replied, "Beth isn't something I've heard before either. Maybe this is going to be something unique." She pressed her breasts against his chest, teasing him. He ran his hands up and down her sides, and then began to tickle her. She pulled back, laughing, and he leaned over, covering her breasts with his chest and kissing her firmly on the mouth.

After a minute, he pulled away. "Hungry?" he asked. "I think we have some stuff from Lina's in the kitchen...if you want me to, I could fix that spaghetti..."

"Hell no," she said. "I got bread and pastries from Lina's. Bring the bag in here and we can eat in your bed and watch TV." She snickered as he looked at her cynically. "Oh, stop," she said. "You've got to wash the sheets now anyway."

A few minutes later they were sitting in bed, enjoying the sourdough from Lina's with some brie that Bobby had dug out of the fridge. Vanessa flipped through the channels, finally settling on a crime drama.

He chuckled. "Miss work much?"

She grinned. "Only every day. I have to watch these so I don't lose my touch."

"Speaking of touch," he remarked, "how was my mojo?"

"What?"

He sighed. "You know, my mojo...what I'm supposed to be working with you, according to your sister?" He took another bite of bread and cheese.

"First," she said pointedly, "I don't ever want to talk about my sister when we're naked."

He laughed. "Point taken."

"Second." Now she smiled and reached over and stroked his belly. She heard his breath hitch. Definitely not expecting that. "You have the most amazing mojo I've ever come across."

He didn't respond, but a smile crossed his lips. After a minute, he elbowed her. "I loved you even before you said that."

"Yeah, I know." She took another bite. "But it's still true. You're pretty amazing, especially given the circumstances. Angie must be nuts."

"I didn't love her. Maybe that made the difference."

She looked at him, tearing at his piece of bread, half smiling. He looked content, relaxed. Not a look she saw on him very often. "Maybe," she mused. "Maybe that's the trick to all of this...you know, love and trust and all that shit."

He chuckled again. Putting his plate on the end table, he leaned over and nibbled on her neck until she laughed. "Don't go," he whispered. "Don't go, ever."

She put her bread aside and wrapped her arms around his neck. "Trust me, I'm not going anywhere. Not without you." Her hand ran down his chest again, then back up to his mouth. He kissed it and she sighed. "I like it here. You already know that...it's my safe haven." She snuggled closer, and he wrapped his arms around her, pulling her head to his chest and resting his chin on her forehead. "Even with sex. I don't know how you managed to make that safe, but you did. Not only safe, but the best damn lay I've ever had in my life. I don't want to leave."

"Then don't," he whispered, and they lay curled up, with the TV on, until sleep overtook them.

*******************************************

She woke to the obnoxious beep, beep, beep of his alarm clock next to her ear. Rolling over, she hit the off button, then fumbled around for the remote. The TV was still on from the night before, now airing an infomercial selling spray haircolor for men. Trying not to laugh, she flipped it off and turned to look at him.

He was asleep, on his side facing her. She knew he didn't sleep more than a few hours a night, and wondered if he had gotten up at some point during the night. If he had, nothing had been disturbed; the TV had still been on and the bread and brie cheese was still on the plates on their opposing end tables.

She lay down next to him again, listening to his breathing. Slow, steady; in, out. He looked so peaceful when he slept, like a child. All the worry and stress from his life was lifted from him. She watched his face, then had a burning desire to be closer to him. For a moment, she thought briefly of her last boyfriend--a singer who had been too famous, too rich, too risky. Who thought he was a sex god. Who thought too much of himself and not enough of her.

He and her drug usage had made her decide to leave the industry. It was getting harder and harder to face herself each day. She wondered, briefly, how she would tell Bobby about some of the things she had done in the past, should he ask. She knew he wasn't a saint but somehow had the feeling he expected her past to be less racy than it had been. Maybe she was wrong, though. Maybe he knew.

He stirred next to her, shifting slightly on the bed, and she took the opportunity to place a hand on his chest. He felt so warm. For some reason, his chest hair was inexplicably fascinating to her, and she ran her fingertips through it again. Her hand ran down his chest to his abdomen, softly stroking his skin until his eyes opened sleepily.

"Hey," he murmured, smiling at her, then closing his eyes again. Her hand was lazily stroking around his belly.

"Hi," she whispered. "Your alarm went off a few minutes ago."

"Mmm," he replied, enjoying her touch. She slid her hand down, catching his morning erection in her palm. It surprised him, and he opened his eyes again, this time more focused.

She smiled at him. "No wonder you're proud of your feet," she snickered, running her hand over the length of him. "I always thought that was a myth."

He chuckled. "It may be a myth...maybe I just got lucky...you know, God trying to make up for the rest of my life that was a mess." He watched her face, thinking how beautiful her smile was. He leaned over and kissed her softly, reaching up to stroke her breasts. "I don't have a lot of time."

She kissed him back, scooting closer to his body, then whispered, "I don't think we need that much time...do you?"

His eyes met hers briefly, then he smiled and leaned down to run his tongue over her left nipple softly. He slipped his other hand behind her neck, in her hair, as his tongue meandered over her breasts.

Vanessa didn't want to wait. The reality was, they were fighting a clock here, and there was no damn way she was going to let him leave without some fantastic, albeit quick,sex. How he had made a potential disaster the best night of her life was unfathomable to her, but he had. She tugged at him, trying to pull him on top of her. After a couple of minutes, he lifted his mouth from her breast and laughed softly. "What in the hell are you trying to do?" he asked her.

She huffed at him. "Trying to get you to hurry up...you have to get to work, you know..."

"Don't worry," he told her, "we'll get there." He turned his attention to her throat, sucking softly, letting his hands roam across her body. God, she was soft. So beautiful. He felt her stiffen each time his fingers ran over a scar, but he didn't let it deter him. He wanted to know her body, to learn every inch of her. There was nothing Forrester could have done to make her less beautiful. Eventually, he thought, he would show her that. Eventually she would know.

"Bobby," she whispered in a practical tone, "you're going to have to shower soon if you'll be on time..."

He chuckled softly. "Okay," he whispered. "How's this?" He slid into her gently until she groaned, as she had done the night before. He took that to be a sign to wait for her, and a moment later she raised her hips again, and he slipped in fully.

He kissed her, open mouthed, listening to the soft moan leaving her lips as he began to thrust gently. Thoughts and fantasies were flowing through his head, and he gave way to them. His lips pressed against her ear, whispering, "So beautiful. So soft. I love you. So sexy, Beth...so perfect." Within minutes his head was dizzy and spinning, and he decided to stop thinking and focus on the rhythm between them.

She was arching softly against him, following his rhythm, listening to the words flooding her ear and wanting him more with each utterance. For just a moment, her thoughts wandered to other lovers, and how little they had understood her. How they didn't know how she thought, how she felt, or how she worked, on any level. She felt his lips move to her breast and lost herself to the lovely feeling engulfing her.

She could sense his impending orgasm, knew he was trying to wait for her. The knowledge excited and thrilled her; no man had ever even seemed aware of how close she was. He returned to her ear and began to whisper more intense words, passionate words, until she clutched him tightly, pleasure rushing through every nerve ending and he pressed his mouth to her shoulder, shuddering against her.

He didn't want to move. He knew he was heavier, larger, but she was so incredibly warm, soft, inviting. She loved him and he could feel it coursing through his body. For a moment he pondered calling in sick and staying here, in the bed, with her for the rest of the day and the night, loving her. But she interrupted his daydream with hands running through the back of his hair and soft kisses on his face.

"You have to shower," she said softly. "You'll be late, and you know how Deakins reacts to that."

He moved off of her and lay still, where she had slept the night before. She stroked his arm. After a moment, he whispered, "I don't want to leave."

She flopped over in the bed. "Bobby," she said in her most sensible voice, "I'll be at home all day unpacking. You can come over when you get off of work." Seeing that the look in his eye hadn't changed, she snuggled up to his chest. "I love you, Bobby. I won't leave. And you won't leave me. We'll be okay together."

He thought about going through his day, cornering and interrogating perps, and coming home to her in that huge condo. Her place was closer to work than his.

"I have a bigger bed too," she said slyly, running one finger over his chest. "And I'll make dinner."

He thought about that. Dinner and dessert. He smiled. "Sounds good to me." He stood next to the bed for a minute. "I love you. And I'm going to make sure you know that, Ness. Every day." He grabbed a pair of boxers from his chest of drawers. "Go back to sleep. I'll see you tonight."

She nodded. "Yep...tonight."

She closed her eyes, listening to him start the water in the shower, and thinking about how natural making love to him felt. As though they had always been meant for this. Somehow he managed to make her forget the hell she had been through and make her feel more beautiful than she had in years. She loved him. And she was committed to holding on.

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